Bad Brains: Black Dots (Reissue)

Bad Brains Black Dots cover

Bad Brains
Black Dots
(Wax Audio Group)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

How uncompromisingly punk was Washington, D.C.’s notorious Bad Brains? The band’s first album from 1982 was only released on cassette!

Later music, including the group’s Ric Ocasek produced debut album, was marginally more commercial. After that the Brains even signed with majors Epic and Maverick, altering their sound to a more speed metal attack. But by then the magic was, if not totally gone, at least dissipated. It was the quartet’s early work, led by the aggressive vocals and poetry of singer H.R. along with founder/guitarist Dr. Know’s frantic licks, that put Bad Brains on the map and have kept them as a legendary act, at least in hardcore circles.

This Back Dots set represents the earliest Bad Brains music. It was recorded soon after their 1979 formation in the home of producer Don Zientara and remained unreleased until belatedly seeing the light of day in 1996. The record has been difficult to find on vinyl after quickly going out of print, but has now been reissued in that format for the first time in 20 years (a limited run on white vinyl will be followed by a black vinyl pressing).

It goes without saying to anyone who has heard Bad Brains that this somewhat hastily recorded studio session is raw, live, loud and in-your-face powerful. H.R. spits out his words like a man obsessed and haunted (you’ll need to refer to written lyrics available online to understand what he’s singing about), guitarist Dr. Know thrashes with wild abandon but a firm control on riffs, and drummer Earl Hudson bashes away with fire and fury. Early versions of songs the Bad Brains were known for like “Pay To Cum,” “Banned In D.C.” and “How Low Can A Punk Get” are here, most in even more caffeinated form than later, slightly (very slightly) more controlled recordings. Others like the self-explanatory “Just Another Damn Song” (that’s all the lyrics in it) and the title track never appeared on official future discs.

It’s a breathless, often exhilarating, always intense ride with the 16 cuts barely breaking a half hour. All but one is under three minutes with a handful under two. And even if the reggae influences that informed the Brains’ sound at their height aren’t apparent, this shows how tight and together they were early on. Certainly Black Dots is for established cult fans, likely the only ones to spring for it on vinyl since it is, and has been, available as a digital stream. While not a milestone in their catalog on the order of 1986’s more organized I Against I, it’s an important document in the catalog of one of America’s most uncompromising and innovative punk acts, one that still influences musicians in its genre.