Ever hear the one about the hardcore punk band who made a prog rock album?
Who made it?: Greg Graffin and Brett Gurewitz (Producers), Jim Mankey (Engineering), Epitaph Records.
Who’s on it?: Graffin (Vocals, Synthesizer, Piano, Acoustic Guitar), Gurewitz (Guitar, Backing Vocals), Paul Dedona (Bass), Davy Goldman (Drums).
Recorded at: Perspective Sound, Sun Valley, California.
Release date: 30 November, 1983.
Bad Religion are veterans of the hardcore movement. Their 1988 record, Suffer, revitalised the genre and established a scene in Southern California that would later ignite the punk renaissance of the 90s. Known for their lightning-fast guitar licks, highly politicised lyrics and a production quality few of their peers can match, Bad Religion have enjoyed their own measure of success over the last three-and-a-half decades.
Just don’t mention their prog rock album.
Into the Unknown is something of a rarity. Never released on CD, there’s been a number of bootlegs over the years and the original LP sells for hundreds of pounds on eBay. Today, the only official release is part of the band’s 30th Anniversary vinyl box set, which was limited to a mere 3,000 copies (a set I’ve had the great pleasure of sampling). For die-hard Bad Religion fans, Into the Unknown is their most controversial release and the most difficult to track down in its original form. There’s a touch of the forbidden about it, which has always intrigued me.
People flat-out hate this album, if only because it was something different. Even the band look upon with it scorn (at least until recently), which is sad for a fan who happens to appreciate the unbridled experimentation of Into the Unknown. There’s no impossibly fast shredding or rhythmic three-part vocal harmonies, but there’s plenty of heart and scope. It reaches levels of anthemic joy that mark it as one of the most unfairly-panned recordings of all time. I’m serious. This is the Bad Religion album you can stick on in a hot-boxed room when you don’t want your eardrums blown-out. The one your parents would rather you put on instead of Against the Grain (1990). Its anything but hardcore punk. Into the Unknown makes no bones about its progressive rock influences, anticipating the revival a decade early. Fans were notoriously harsh on it at the time, choosing to view the band’s change in direction as a personal affront. Perhaps they should have foreseen such hostility, and to fully understand the album’s legacy, you must acknowledge the impact of their debut, 1981′s How Could Hell Be Any Worse?, and the nature of the punk subculture in 80s Los Angeles (when they were opening for bands like Social Distortion).
Produced on a measly $1,000 budget – loaned from guitarist Brett Gurewitz’s father – How Could Hell… made quite a stir. The impassioned lyrics, sang with conviction by Greg Graffin, were unusually verbose for the genre, and even critics who loathed punk rock admired its lo-fi intensity. In Bad Religion’s expansive discography (of sixteen albums), it is the closest they’ve ever gotten to putting out an old school record.
How Could Hell… was popular with punkers and gave Gurewitz’s fledgling label, Epitaph, an underground hit. Many anticipated the band’s second release, which followed two years later. However, Graffin had grown disillusioned with the scene, which was now synonymous with gang violence, and decided to recalibrate the group’s sound. A decision that was highly controversial among the members, resulting in the departure of bassist Jay Bentley and drummer Pete Finestone (who would later rejoin). Graffin hired Paul Dedona and Davy Goldman as replacements, and Into the Unknown would be their only album as members of Bad Religion. They were also assisted in the studio by an uncredited Thom Wilson, who would go on to produce The Offspring’s highly-successful Smash for Epitaph.
Due to a new outlook and a variety of personnel changes, the group’s second studio album is their most singular and, dare I say it, against the grain work. In his book, Anarchy Evolution, Graffin is refreshingly honest about the genesis of the album:
“The songs on it reveal that neither of us wanted anything to do with the violent subculture of punk. Yet we also were obviously unaware of how it would be perceived by the people who enjoyed our music. The album sounds nothing like punk. It’s more like Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd getting together with REM.”
That comparison isn’t without merit. Floyd’s influence is apparent from the opening track, which is pure 70s stoner rock complete with synthesisers and keyboards. It’s not a hollow homage and seems to stem from the classic band’s earlier work on records like The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967), the similarities to which are brought home with track four, the sprawling “Time and Disregard.” And, of course, there is the beautiful album cover, which wouldn’t look out-of-place in Floyd’s catalogue. That’s some terrifically geeky artwork.
“It’s Only Over When…” is an ideal intro for Into the Unknown, although the synthesised elements have dated it. Yet, it’s also an archetypal BR track in terms of the lyrics, which continually remind the listener to never give up in the face of adversity. If it was sped-up and played harder, it would feel right at home on Suffer or No Control (1988). It’s not one of my favourites on the LP, but Gurewitz’s guitar work in the last stretch is fantastic. His well-honed contributions set a tone for the album – one of build-ups and crescendos.
“Chasing the Wild Goose” takes things into more eclectic and darker territory. I can only surmise that it’s about the human need to live for something… or perhaps the yearning to discover why we exist at all, in signature BR fashion. It’s also rather dour lyrically for a group so young:
“Millions and millions chase the wild goose tonight,
To conquer loneliness they’ll chase it all their lives.
And when they find it they can just lay down and die.
It seems the game is mostly pointless in the presence of the prize.”
Track number three has become the most popular number on the record, if only because its targets are perhaps the most overtly punk of the lot, distilling the pent-up frustration and direction-less delirium of being different in suburbia. “Billy Gnosis” is a frankly brilliant old-fashioned rock anthem that hooks the listener with Gurewitz’s barbed opening refrain:
“A crack developed and a name blew in,
Billy Gnosis, weak and thin.
He moved to California to start a new life,
Because back in his hometown he just killed his wife.”
Everything works on this one. The lyrics are up there with the band’s finest, and the extended guitar solo that brings the number to a close is possibly the best on the album. What’s interesting is how this is a very upbeat and poppy-sounding track that confronts disturbing subject matter; if sources are to be believed, it’s really about Gurewitz’s drug addiction. Such knowledge doesn’t stop it from being a pleasure to listen to, however, and “Billy Gnosis” could be Into the Unknown‘s saving grace for more critical fans of the band.
The centrepiece of the LP is “Time and Disregard,” which is easily the longest BR song at a leisurely seven-minutes. It’s also the most unabashedly proggy. If you could sum it up, it would be about man’s continued crusade to fuck up the environment. There’s a solid acoustic base to this track that lulls you in, and Graffin is at his most undeniably soulful. The way the track changes gear several times and becomes faster is beautifully done (reminiscent of future classic “Generator”). And, once again, they bring out the electric guitars to end the movement on a self-indulgent solo. They really went all out here.
A special mention for this particular verse, which displays Graffin’s talent for sticking it to the man eloquently:
“I used to roam, wherever I would,
I’d see my friends and I’d eat what I could.
We did live together in our borderless state,
Survival our instinct, nature our fate.
Today I see borders and my friends disappear,
Man chooses my fate, thus I live in fear.
Tomorrow the trucks come,
I’ve nowhere to run.
My home is destroyed so they can have fun.”
Side two doesn’t quite reach the same giddy heights, but the wordplay continues to provoke. “The Dichotomy” is the sparest of the bunch, favouring melody over lyrics, but the complete song is still packed with intellectual naval-gazing. Is it about religion or government? You can read anything you like into this:
“Hey did you find the pieces your mentor left behind?
And did you care, did you trade his genius for your despair?
Did you walk the line?
Did you see the mongrels on either side?
Did greasy fingers grasp for pieces of your mind?”
Much better is “Million Days,” arguably the most uplifting tune on the platter. The repeated refrain, “A million days is worth one good laugh,” displays the band in their more optimistic mindset. Again, this is largely an acoustic song, but the stripped-down style suits it well.
“Losing Generation” gets my vote as the most dated and expendable contribution to Into the Unknown. The synth comes out in a big bad way, stopping it from being the powerhouse it should have been. But it’s not all bad – you could say this is the closest approximation to the group’s later work on the album, favouring a faster tempo and poppier kick. This is one track they should revisit.
“…You Give Up” closes the LP by ending things where they started – a popular gimmick for prog artists. The way it references “It’s Only Over When…” is inspired, giving it a darker and more pessimistic bent, and concluding the journey in characteristically thought-provoking fashion. It also gives the album a cyclical feel, making it seem complete and self-contained.From beginning to end, Into the Unknown knows exactly what it is, and they achieved their lofty goals better than many other artists who have stumbled into prog’s murky waters. Sure, some of it is cheesy, but this is an album over thirty, after all.
I’ll admit it: Hearing this after exposure to the band’s harder, faster material is a rather disarming experience. But this one grows on me with each listen, and upon reflection, its successes are clear. The production by Gurewitz and Graffin is remarkable considering they were still in their teens at the time and relative novices. It was a massive technical accomplishment in the wake of How Could Hell Be Any Worse?, which is so grungy and rough around the edges, a true punk record. The lyrics are thoughtful in that BR way and dating well, several of the melodies really stick in the mind, and the creative experiments should be congratulated, not derided. Their learning curve was huge, and if nothing else, Into the Unknown deserves to be accepted as the missing link between the band’s grungy, no-frills aesthetic and their desire to achieve total audio perfection on Suffer and everything else since. I love it… sincerely and unapologetically.
It’s also the perfect fan rebuttal to those annoying people who complain about “every Bad Religion album sounding the same.” They most certainly do not.
You can listen to Into the Unknown in full, along with the entire Bad Religion catalogue, on their official website.
- Graffin holds a Phd. in Molecular Biology and teaches a class at UCLA. He was also the second person to receive Harvard Secular Society’s “Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism.” He joins Salman Rushdie, Joss Whedon and Stephen Fry.
- The band promptly disbanded after Into the Unknown‘s limp reception. Three years later they returned to their punkier sound with the appropriately-titled EP, Back to the Known (1986).
- Engineer Jim Mankey was the guitarist for rock band Concrete Blonde (and was also a brief member of Sparks). Mankey’s collaborator, singer Johnette Napolitano, would later provide vocals on the Bad Religion track “Struck a Nerve,” from their 1993 album Recipe for Hate.
- “Chasing the Wild Goose” was covered by Jawbreaker in concert.
- The band performed “Billy Gnosis” on their 30 Years tour in 2010 (below). They hadn’t played a song from Into the Unknown since 1983. It’s also worth noting that the last track on No Control is called “Billy,” a possible reference to or spiritual reprise of “Billy Gnosis.”