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Bad Brains: Build a Nation (Album Review)

A band of militant peace-loving Rastafarian punk rockers from Washington DC, Bad Brains are one of the most influential American bands from the Eighties, name-checked by everyone from Red Hot Chili Peppers to Green Day, rapper Lil Jon and even Madonna, who signed them to her Maverick label in the Nineties.

The original (and virtually the only) black punk rock band, Bad Brains alternated between thrash punk and lilting reggae. The juxtaposition of hard/soft and fast/slow elements gave them the edge on other hardcore bands, whose music seemed stuck in fifth gear. Bad Brains fused metal, punk, jazz and funk without sounding clumsy. Their music was molten, volcanic.

In singer HR (aka Human Rights) they had a voluble but volatile frontman whose stage presence has been described as a combination of James Brown and Johnny Rotten. HR would howl and wail and croon while performing back-flips and bouncing off the other players. He also bounced off other band members off-stage, leading to long stints as a solo performer. Bad Brains’ career was stifled by numerous personnel and even name changes (at one point they were known as Soul Brains). The internal strife was reflected in a recorded output which could be wildly uneven.

Build a Nation is the first album in 10 years recorded by the original line-up. Produced by Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, it doesn’t stray too far from their original template but it is focused and involving. Individual band members might be pushing 50 but they still play with the agility and vigour of 20-year-olds. And they’re still the only band who can get away with singing a song called ‘Universal Peace’ and make it sound like the march to war.