Through two volatile decades, Bad Brains have survived. These dreadlocked rockers from Washington, D.C., influenced everyone from Living Colour to the Beastie Boys. In many ways, Bad Brains anticipated the cut-and-paste genre splicing of '90s hitmakers by burning through the walls that separated punk and reggae, metal and funk, black music and white audiences.
And now, God of Love, the re-formed group's sixth album, sounds very much of the moment rather than ahead of it. If once the band emphasized musical extremes, downshifting from hardcore blitz to reggae loping and back again, the new disc seeks a less jarring middle ground: fat metal riffs instead of jittering punk chords and lusher, more pop-friendly Caribbean rhythms. This is Bad Brains at their most contemplative, with an unusually large number of island rhythms showing up in a variety of guises: Keyboards give "How I Love Thee" an almost ambient atmosphere, "To the Heavens" quotes Bob Marley and "Overs the Water" suggests an African high-life melody.
These more contemplative backdrops bring lead singer HR's earnest spirituality and shamanistic singing to the fore. The Rastafarian faith has been a constant presence in the band's music, and here it's pervasive, from the apocalyptic gallop of "Cool Mountaineer" to the droning incantations of "Thank Jah."
The intensity of HR's delivery on these tracks is matched by the single-mindedness of his vision. Frequently invoking Jah, Jesus or Haile Selassie, HR yearns for a world he can only imagine, and his longing for redemption is the record's emotional fuel. In producer Ric Ocasek's canny mix, HR's multitracked voice — falsetto wail, blissed-out croon, ganja-soaked rasp, prayerful moan — carries the melodies while suggesting an ongoing dialogue with the self, the soul and the spirit. As contemporary and accessible as God of Love sounds, its core message is more cosmic — the vision of an outsider striving to embrace the unknowable.