Talk about a return to form. 1996's misproduced, flat-sounding, disappointing The Gray Race (a good LP for most bands but a poor one for Bad Religion) had both critics and fans wondering if this U.S. underground institution could prosper despite the loss of key guitarist BRETT GUREWITZ, who'd written half the songs on the first eight albums, as well as provided much of the essential attitude. (Gurewitz had left the quintet in 1994 following an argument with bassist JAY BENTLEY, allowing "Mr. Brett" to better concentrate on his about-to-explode Epitaph label, which Bad Religion launched prior to signing to Atlantic). Gurewitz's departure meant that singer GREG GRAFFIN was now left to compose all the songs himself. And though the real blame for The Gray Race must go to its producer, ex-CARS star RIC OCASEK (the material sounded so much better live!), who failed for the third time to adequately produce a punk LP (he botched two BAD BRAINS LPs a decade apart), a good half of the album also suffered from weak writing, implying Graffin was not up to the enlarged task. No need to think that any longer. Following on the heels of his first, sparkling solo LP, self-titled under the name AMERICAN LESION, No Substance makes two totally opposite, great Graffin-penned LPs written and recorded within the same year. He can and he will carry the band as a writer. And with material and production back up to snuff, the group is once more the most exciting punk band around, as they've been for a decade. In fact, since 1994's Stranger Than Fiction was certified gold in March, Bad Religion's momentum is back in all ways. Was Graffin distracted during The Gray Race by his divorce, the uprooting of his family and the self-critical upheaval it unleashed, so detailed in all its misery, anguish, anger, spite, and longing on American Lesion? Whatever the reason for this mass 1997 outpouring, he seems refreshed, refocused and sharp throughout No Substance. And perhaps his sad personal experiences piqued and spiked his outward-looking sociopolitical awareness, for there's an even bigger bug-in-his-rug this time. If you happen to miss it in the merciless disrelish of "Mediocre Minds" and "At the Mercy of the Imbeciles," it's spelled out in "The State of the End of the Millennium Address," a spoken-word litany of contemporary complaints swathed in sarcasm, forming a companion to "The Voice of God is Government" (from 1982's debut How Could Hell Be Any Worse?) with its flashback town-cry of "Neighbors!" Just as importantly, by 1) self-producing No Substance with engineers ALEX PERIALAS and the group's live soundman RONNIE KIMBALL, 2) doing much of the recording at ease in Graffin's fully-equipped Ithaca, NY home studio, Polypterus, and 3) hiring ace mixer CHRIS LORD-ALGE to make the final sound crunchy, Bad Religion restored the fiery assault from their older records and tours to back Graffin's lyrical daggers. Moreover, for the first time since 1993's Recipe For Hate, they've stopped worrying whether their fans are fretting now that they're on a major label, and have thus revisited the variety of tempos and styles that they'd finally attempted on that LP-after several albums before (and since) with a more narrow focus. Such expansiveness pays off here big-time. Significantly, Bad Religion pays tribute on No Substance to the more open-minded new wave era, to the less-rushed, late-'70s L.A. punk scene that inspired the band's formation there in 1980. The opening of the first track "Hear It" recreates the opening of THE ADOLESCENTS' 1980 classic "No Way"-fitting, since the two bands/friends opened several bills for each other at the opening of their careers. Likewise, the start of "Shades of Truth" xeroxes the start of THE U.K. SUBS' 1981 Diminished Responsibility single "Warhead." Similarly, guitarist GREG HETSON says hello to the band that helped his RED CROSS when he was 15, 1979 BLACK FLAG, by grabbing a smudge of their "No Values" for the music of "Mediocre Minds" (with a sprinkling of OHIO EXPRESS's 1968 #4 bubblegum hit "Yummy Yummy Yummy!"). Even '70s Classic Rock gets a nod when "The Biggest Killer in American History" burgles, for much better use, a riff from FOREIGNER's wretched 1978 #3 hit "Hot Blooded." But these homages merely form a cornerstone for the band's renewed vigilance. What first catches one's attention is the up-front urgency, the harrowing hunger, both in Graffin's aroused, soaring vocals, and even more so in the band's once-again thundering smolder. What a pleasure it is, as Graffin reaches, as if on vocal tip-toes, for the highest notes in the verses of "Shades of Truth," while Bentley pounds out the familiar chord sequence even more ferociously than The Subs' great ALVIN GIBBS did. (This song and the title track also contain distinctive, incredible three-part harmonies that continue to differentiate Bad Religion from the 900 inferior poppy-punk bands that germinated in the wake of their late '80s underground rise). And how about that 1966 Keith Moon impression drummer BOBBY SCHAYER whips out, frantically, on "All Fantastic Images," the LP's standout killer? Though it's subtle underneath the slamming guitar onslaught, '60s expert Schayer likely noted the Mod-influenced clap of power-chords that introduce the verses. Overall, freed by some of the less-frenzied tempos, Schayer steps out on this LP, his tom toms pounding like war drums. And even relative newcomer BRIAN BAKER, Gurewitz's replacement, gets more in the act this time, generating the chords for five of these 16 cuts; both his knockout "All Fantastic Images" and the bouncy "The Same Person" show the renewed benefit of a second writer, as Gurewitz did time and again. Mind you, Gurewitz's lyrics are still missed, but Graffin was always his equal, and appears prepared to grapple with the whole salami of fear and loathing, while hitting a string of intelligent targets with his warnings. Perhaps the triumph of style over substance is the obvious theme suggested by the LP's name (a vaguely-daring suggestion that the title does not refer to this LP!). But like Jello Biafra in the early Dead Kennedys, only without the parodying humor (but just as smart), there's a suspicion in each of these songs that as we congratulate ourselves on our social and technological progress, we struggle to beat down the inner voice that reminds us of the not-so-hidden costs of blinders. So much is thus addressed: the downside of the internet (another place to make people more passive?); the dangers in irresponsible science; confused children lost in single-parent promotion; the ever-more-pervasive bombardment of the senses by marketing and salesmanship (and infotainment, a true scourge!), anesthetizing our ability to think critically or even think at all; the dearth of soul and feeling in our popular feel-good culture; the encroachment of uptight-Puritanical, reactionary religious conservatives; and the endless lack of grace and thinly concealed foreboding/paranoia that comes from modern American twisted-ethic values that puts sex scandals over health care. It all seeps from the pores of No Substance, not only from Graffin's lyrics and his spitting, passionate, alpine vocals, but from the curious, restrained rage that ferments behind each guitar passage. It's in the little things, such as the Eastern touches in the background of the bridge in "The Hippy Killers," or in the been-through-a-war resignation of "The Same Person" and "In So Many Ways" that belies the aggressive charge. This adds up to more than just another loud-hard guitar LP. This is multi-nuanced. Like the great Radiohead, but inverted (i.e., No Substance is vibrant, throbbing, on-edge, and beautifully jarring instead of claustrophobic, emotionally spent, pent-up and sometimes benignly elegant), this album works on many levels beyond mere entertainment. Which means that, like OK Computer, No Substance makes one confront beneath-the-surface realities and think deeply. And it does so with a steaming, genuinely unique aural punishing that compliments Graffin's intellectual antipathy from the fringe, ardently evoked by a former and future Cornell University lecturer. In the end, it's that still-unbeatable four-point combination of scorching playing, extraordinarily tuneful songs, erudite words, and fantastic singing-and now improved variety-that makes Bad Religion not only the best punk band in the world, but now the best and most important rock band in America, as too much of their inspired competition has largely, sadly, left the building. And by adding this tenth crackling, glorious grenade to a 17-year catalog that already smoked, one that now even includes the commercial-approval landmark of a 500,000 domestic seller (on their first-ever major label LP), Bad Religion clearly takes its place among the "against-the-grain" greats in history, from Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine; to Émile Zola, Upton Sinclair, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Eugene Debs, Bertrand Russell, and Helen Keller; to Paul Robeson, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Eugene O'Neill, Jackie Robinson, Henry Miller and John Steinbeck; to Arthur Miller, Ken Kesey, Joseph Heller, the 1964 Dylan, 1969 Velvet Underground, 1971 Marvin Gaye, and 1973 Stooges; to the Sex Pistols, Clash, Buzzcocks, Jam, Weirdos, Avengers, Wipers, and (Newtown) Neurotics; to Billy Bragg and Radiohead; and to (Chaplin's) The Great Dictator, On the Beach, Shindler's List, Secrets and Lies and The Bonfire of the Vanities (the book version), for offering real, belligerent "substance" in a time when that's too damn dear.
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AllMusic Review by Jack Rabid