Considering that the Beastie Boys were a fledgling punk group before they were rappers and MCA (Adam Yauch) was often seen slam-dancing front and center at Bad Brains' legendary early performances, he would seem the perfect candidate to produce and resurrect the newly reunited group. In truth, he does a fantastic job capturing Bad Brains on Build a Nation, and they rock nearly as hard as they did in their glory days before they switched to funk metal -- Yauch explained that his goal was to replicate the raw sound that he remembers from their live shows and the first self-titled Reach Out International Records tape. Although the group recalls some of its best hardcore roots with an added concrete-shattering low end not found in a lot of its early recordings, the problem is that frontman H.R. simply doesn't have the energy or larynx that he once did, and has to resort to a lower octave and sing in an Anthony Kiedis "Give It Away" vocal style. But who can blame him? It was over 25 years ago when he unleashed his furious shriek and wide array of spastic crooning voices, and it takes a young man's fire to spew microphone venom with that ferocity. Often, he moans his vocal lines in an imitation Lee Perry reggae voice (even on the punkier songs) and has to resort to a lot more studio trickery and delays to make up for his lack of dynamics.
This washy style of singing doesn't always feel completely appropriate, but it fits perfectly when the Brains flip the switch to their reggae grooves, which now sound more authentic than ever. This should be no surprise since their last album consisted of only dub music, and their yellow, red, and green album art looks remarkably like a Marley bootleg with a track listing that includes "Natty Dreadlocks 'Pon the Mountaintop" and "Jah People Make the World Go Round." Since the album was recorded at the B-Boys' Oscilloscope Laboratories, many of the reggae numbers have elements of the Beasties' instrumentals on The Mix Up; it sounds like keyboardist-for-hire Jamie Saft may have borrowed Money Mark's organ while Yauch added some of the percussive instruments laying around the room for a few numbers. Even when the washed-out dubby vocals coincide with thrashing guitars, the heavy songs work remarkably well, too. The combination of the two styles makes for an interesting result, especially in "Let There Be Angels (Just Like You)" and "Universal Peace." While Bad Brains never quite match the intensity of their early days, this is easily the best record they've released since Quickness, and maybe even since I Against I. Fans of H.R., Gary, Darryl, and Earl should be happy to hear that they're finally back on track and sounding relevant again.