I Against I

Bad Brains

album cover

The Refinement of an Unlikely Sound

Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys once described the Bad Brains' self-titled 1982 debut as "the best punk/hardcore album of all time." That may be an overstatement, but this Washington, D.C., foursome did have seismic and overnight impact—its thrashy, superfast speed-punk attack, paired with melodies (and philosophy) drawn from reggae and dub, was unlike anything else in hardcore. While most punks were lucky to lurch to the end of a song together, this rhythm section, which got its start playing jazz, turned out keyed-up music loaded with jolting and abrupt switchbacks.

Bad Brains is thirty-six minutes of full-tilt mayhem, with a few thoughtful down-tempo dub tracks for respite. This follow-up is more refined. It was made four years later, after the band had broken up and re-formed, and was thinking about music in considerably more expansive terms. Steady road work taught the Brains the importance of pacing; the biggest change on I Against I is the variety of tempos and grooves, and vocalist H.R.'s contortions—he sings some songs in an aggravated whine, others like a bellowing drill sergeant.

Several of these tunes, notably "Secret 77," are almost featherweight pop. The reggae element, which was dear to H.R. ("Human Rights," born Paul D. Hudson), flourishes on the antiviolence title track and the chilling spiritual "House of Suffering." Yet this is still a hardcore band: Even when the melodies exude hopeful rasta positivity (see "Re-Ignition"), the anchoring rhythms, which include ripping funk backbeats or fitful heavy rock, are anything but idyllic.

And in truth, the fine points associated with different musical styles don't matter much when this daredevil rhythm section is at work. Sounding almost supernaturally cohesive, like they're all breathing with the same lungs, the Bad Brains go headfirst at everything safe and staid about rock. Guitarist Dr. Know (Gary Miller) stomps on the canvas with severe blockhead chords, then turns around and serves up crying single-note leads that are as gentle as droplets of rain.

Bridging the abrasive energy of punk and the blissed-out tones of reggae in ways much more aggressive than such British acts as the Specials, the Bad Brains put forth an idea that was radical in punk then, and remains that way now: that a sound of relentless harshness could carry expressions of great sensitivity.

Genre: Rock
Released: 1986, SST
Key Tracks: "House of Suffering," "I Against I," "She's Calling You"
F.Y.I.: According to Bad Brains lore, H.R. recorded the vocals of "Sacred Love" over the phone from prison, while serving time on a marijuana charge.
Catalog Choice: Bad Brains
Next Stop: Minor Threat: Complete Works
After That: 24-7 Spyz: Harder than You
Book Page: 37

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#1 from Dave from DC, DC - 12/05/2008 11:02

I am now considering picking up the book because your inclusion of this album proves that you did your research and did it very well. Bad Brains had other records which might be better and/or more influential (ROIR, Rock for Light), but this is the one that was both revolutionary AND accessible to the ear of those not accustomed to the constant buzzsaw of straight buck-wild hardcore punk a la the invertors and masters of the genre… the almight BAD BRAINS!!! Good work, sir! Please feature this recording!

#2 from Jay, Dallas - 12/28/2009 9:24

“Black Dots” was a recently (1996’ish) uncovered set of demo recordings from Bad Brains origination ca. 1977 - 78. IT IS INCREDIBLE AND I CAN’T GET ENOUGH OF IT. Raw yet intelligent, aggressive yet full of groove.

“I Against I” is a little too into their ‘metal’ phase for my personal taste, still can’t deny that its a great album though. Incredible guitar work.

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