As a band’s discography grows, the impulse or need to experiment grows with it. You see this all the time, regardless of genre, as a band tries to toy with or experiment with the listening public’s perception of what they believe the band is. The result, of course, varies; some projects become a masterful snapshot of a band’s sonic evolution (see: Rx Bandits, And The Battle Begun) while others either miss the mark or go too far into the red (see: Rx Bandits, pretty much everything after And The Battle Begun). The career trajectory seems to go one of two ways: either a band finds success early on and augments their sound to stay interesting to themselves and others, or a band gradually ditches it’s more abrasive sound for something more crowd-pleasing in the search of a larger fanbase.
And then, there are bands like Rancid, who have pulled off a 20+ year career of material that eschews either of the above typical paths. Rancid have a unique talent for putting out albums that sonically differentiate themselves from previous albums while still maintaining the same characteristic sound. A good example of this is the pretty noticeable difference in tone between 1998’s Life Won’t Wait and the excellent follow-up Rancid 2000. The former, which still stands as the band’s most experimental release to date, was followed by the latter’s gritty intensity and a return to the quick, powerful blasts of energy the band started with (fun fact: upon downloading 2000 via some Mediafire link years back, I couldn’t help but notice the genre for the album was listed as “Pissed”). This essentially acted as a reset button for the band, sound-wise, as 2000 had a lot more in common with their debut self-titled and Let’s Go than the two albums released between them.
Honor Is All We Know, Rancid’s eighth studio album and first in six years, acts as yet another career reset button. Filled with quick, catchy punk tunes, this album feels like a spiritual successor to the band’s first two records and a “back-to-basics” course in what makes Rancid so appealing in the first place. The differentiating factor, however, is that the earlier albums are much more hard-hitting and aggressive (I’m looking at you, Rancid 2000) than a lot of the tracks on Honor. Thankfully the new album has a number of tracks that live up to the earlier albums’ intensity, as songs like early favorite “Collision Course” and album finale “Gravedigger” maintain the frenetic energy found on those earlier releases.
With this is mind, this second career reset will surely be necessary in the long run. While this album is not exactly a gamechanger, it is a solid entry and a return to form, especially after 2009’s Let The Dominoes Fall. While that album was still a proper Rancid album, it is pretty widely regarded as a misstep for the band, as it had very little of the energy and charisma of the albums before it. Even the album’s best song “I Ain’t Worried” is peppered with cringe-worthy moments (“I’m Matt Freeman and I’m [covered in semen]”). With this is mind, picture the Rancid-centric world’s collective sigh of relief when, a little over a month ago, news of Honor dropped with a video montage of three songs (“Collision Course”, “Evil’s My Friend”, and the title track) that were gritty and powerful, and imagine how much the news showed astounding promise to those spurned by Dominoes.
Viewing this album as a comeback record is probably how to get the maximum level of appreciation from it. The gang-vocal inspired choruses of songs like “Face Up” and “Now We’re Through With You” will grow in catchiness in your head over time, while the background vocal harmonies in “In The Streets” accentuate what might just be the album’s best hook. On an album of mostly straightforward punk tunes, one song that sticks out is “Malfunction”, which is as soulful as the band has leaned thus far and is a callback to Life Won’t Wait’s stylistic experiments. The two ska songs on the album, “Evil’s My Friend” keeps the energy up during the front half of the album while “Everybody’s Suffering” creates a nice groove that sticks around just long enough for “Gravedigger” to catch you unaware with an abrasive punch that leaves you wanting more. These moments are inherently valuable by themselves, but viewed in context of this band’s later discography you can see just how far Rancid have come in the past six years.
Still though, Honor isn’t a perfect album. Perhaps the most damnable criticism that could be applied to this record is that many of the songs on this thing are much more style than substance. With the exception of a handful of tunes (the comment section is open for anyone willing to debate how much physical space a song can occupy), a lot of the songs don’t really go anywhere, or seem to have been built around a chorus that is repeated ad nauseum, with the verses in between serving as an afterthought. While that method of songwriting would have worked within an album like …And Out Come The Wolves, where every song was endlessly re-playable regardless of how much meat it contained, the effect has worn thin almost two full decades removed from that period of the band’s career.
In all, Rancid have stayed true to their roots and made a comeback album that dials back the experimentation and brings some much needed energy back to the band’s sound. In that sense, “Back Where I Belong”, the first track on the album, plays out as a microcosm for the entire record; Rancid have returned, and I for one am excited to see what the band will do with this new-found sense of enthusiasm.
BIG TUNES: Collision Course, Malfunction, Back Where I Belong, In The Streets
Honor Is All We Know is out this week via Epitaph Records and Tim Armstrong’s Hellcat Records, and can be purchased via Rancid’s website or digitally through iTunes. Below, check out the album track “Already Dead”: