Each week, The Perfect Chord looks back at albums you may have missed when they dropped, or miss now that they’ve faded from memory. This week’s glimpse into the crates:
Bad Brains – Rock For Light
No one can deny D.C. hardcore legends Bad Brains’ significance and legacy in the American musical landscape, if only due to the sheer breadth of bands who directly cite them as an influence. Seemingly everyone, from unmistakably top-40 pop bands like No Doubt, Sublime, and Sugar Ray, to rap icons The Beastie Boys, to metal bands The Entombed, Deftones, and Sepultura have overtly proclaimed their fandom; even dance producer Moby and pop-hip hopper Lil’ Jon have shown the band love over the decades, to say nothing of music critics. Despite the band’s remarkably high profile, all of the most effusive praise in the public arena focuses on a mere two albums: the band’s self-titled 1982 debut, and their third album, 1986’s I Against I.
Less-acknowledged is their sophomore full-length, 1983’s Rock For Light, partly because many of the songs on the album are merely re-recorded versions of songs on Bad Brains and partly because the band hadn’t yet begun to experiment with the more nuanced musical styles they would unleash in full force on I Against I and 1989’s Quickness. Unfortunately, the oversight, combined with a vinyl-only release and a completely-botched CD/cassette reissue, has resulted in the nigh-complete disregard of what is, by leaps and bounds, the band’s most focused and beautiful work.
What sets Rock For Light apart from its predecessor (and most of its successors) is its stellar production value, courtesy of Cars frontman (and future legendary über-producer) Rick Ocasek, whose impact can immediately be felt solely by listening to how he mixes Earl Hudson’s drums. Previous recordings suffered from the limitations traditionally found on most punk rock releases, but Ocasek gives Earl a spacious room-filling sound that almost gives the illusion of standing directly in front of him. Gary Miller’s guitar and Darryl Jenifer’s bass, on the other hand, are fairly close together in the mix; the latter’s instrument has been sapped of most of the higher-end frequencies, resulting in it being more felt than heard, but Miller’s guitar is as stark and clear as day. The band’s not-so-secret weapon, vocalist Paul “H.R.” Hudson (Earl’s brother), occupies the front and center of the mix, completing the simulacra of a live setting—or, at least, an ideal one.
The album begins with little hesitation—an introductory chord from Miller—before the band launches into “Coptic Times.” Earl, Miller, and Jenifer deftly vault between each of the song’s stops-and-starts with the practiced aplomb of a band recording a song they’ve been playing for quite awhile; rather than sounding stale, however, the band sounds as if they’re finally getting it perfect. “Attitude” (another carryover from the debut) is next, a minute and twelve seconds of the band’s trademark spirituality (“don’t care what you guys say…we’ve got that P[ositive] M[ental] A[ttitude]!”), before new song “We Will Not.” Break-up anthem “Sailin’ On” races along at breakneck speed before the album takes its first excursion into reggae: “Rally ‘Round Jah Throne.” Side A continues with two more fast tracks before ending with its best song: reggae cut “The Meek Shall Inherit The Earth.”
Side B begins very similar to Side A—a brief hiccup, this time a light-speed drum roll by Earl—before roaring into “Joshua’s Song,” another new cut (this one describing the fall of the walls of Jericho). The song is the first of Rock For Light’s strongest stretch, a frantic four-song suite of hardcore punk energy. “Banned In D.C.” and “How Low Can A Punk Get?” critique, respectively, the band’s own lack-of-acceptance in the American music scene in their early days and, in a pleasantly surprising turn, the at-times needlessly destructive punk rock scene itself. The latter song is the best on the album, and possibly the best the band has ever written, with Jenifer and Miller repeating a descending jazz scale while H.R. roars with a fury and intensity he’d never be able to recapture in his career; surprisingly, it’s one of the first songs the band had written (it appears on the band’s 1979 demo Black Dots, which wouldn’t see release until 1996), but, like “Coptic Times,” sounds more like a band perfecting a song rather than simply plodding through it. After political paranoia anthem “Big Takeover,” the album takes one more reggae detour with “I And I Survive” before ending with the high-energy “Destroy Babylon,” the title track, and “At The Movies.”
Or, at least, that’s how it ended in 1983. Which reveals the final reason why Rock For Light isn’t as highly regarded as the rest of the band’s catalog; in 1991, following the band’s third break-up (they broke up after Rock For Light, again after I Against I and yet again after Quickness), Ocasek and Jenifer reconvened to remix the album for CD and cassette release on Caroline records. While the remix included the addition of a few new tracks (most notably an inspired recording of “Supertouch/Sh*tfit”), the duo inexplicably removed most of the low end from the mix. Earl’s drums go from sounding thunderous and expansive to tinny and trebly, and Jenifer’s bass virtually disappears. What’s worse, all the non-reggae songs were remixed with a slight speed increase resulting in their sounding as if they’ve been pitched up a half-step; subsequently, H.R.’s voice sounds almost juvenile, and the guitars sound almost too fast to be real. As this the most widely-available version of the album, it makes sense that it would be listed as a footnote in the band’s extensive catalog; the original vinyl release, however, is a magnum opus.
Fortunately, the band’s longevity completely excuses the relative inaccessibility of their best work. After the aforementioned series of breakups, reunions, and increasingly shambolic albums (all largely due to H.R.’s drug use), Bad Brains finally reunited for good in 2005; the subsequent reunion album, 2007’s Build A Nation, drew heavily upon the band’s earlier, punk rock days and spawned a lengthy world tour. In March of 2011, the band announced they had begun work on a new album that would hopefully see the light of day by the end of the year. Whether or not the band will ever properly reissue Rock For Light remains to be seen; for now, those lucky enough to have it on vinyl have a rare, delightful treat.
A. Darryl Moton drives a bus and listens to far too much metal. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.