"Old punks never die - they just release subpar music. Also, they do eventually die."
Not a recognizable phrase at all, but it could be, even though it's not strictly true by any stretch. There are plenty of old punks out there who still make it happen. Look at, oh, Off! or Dinosaur, Jr. - it's possible to make music in your dotage that is pretty much just as good as your prime-era stuff, just without the shimmering glaze of youth. More commonly, though, old punks release a series of increasingly-less-vital records until, eventually, the cold embrace of the grave puts an end to their bodies and their body of work. Hey, it's true - don't get mad at your music writer for nature's shortcomings.
Two punk bands that are still alive: L7 and Bad Religion. The former just put out "Scatter the Rats," their first album in 20 years and after a long period of inaction, and the latter just released their first in six years with some new members in tow.
It's a heckuva bummer to announce that the L7 record is probably worse than 1999's "Slap-Happy," which found the band sounding drained and bored and was their second subpar album in a row. Hardcore fans looking for an LP that would bring back the jagged anthems of the brilliant 1994 classic "Hungry for Stink" are in for a major disappointment. "Scatter the Rats" is, at times, so listless that it begs to be turned off. Tracks like "Fighting the Crave" and "Murky Water Cafe" sound positively amateurish and stuck in the mud, while songs that have a bit of grimy grunge power ("Proto Prototype," "Burn Baby") are so horribly produced that they have hardly any impact. (Seriously, the whole album sounds like drum-machine demos of a much better project.)
The group still has their singular sense of humor in tow, and both Donita Sparks and Suzi Gardner drop some funny lines and vocalizations. Sparks turns a revving-engine mouth noise into a hook on the decent "Stadium West," and Gardner talks about settling in with a "bodice-ripper" on "Murky Water Cafe." But none of this changes the fact that the two-guitar band decided to produce their album badly, with one mono guitar track right up the middle sitting right on top of the bare-bones beats of Dee Plakas. Hopefully, now that the rats have been scattered, L7 can come back with a properly-ripping album.
Bad Religion, meanwhile, long ago figured out how to not annoy their fan base after a string of subpar albums that ended around the time L7 broke up, so their new "Age of Unreason" is basically just the next chapter in the BR story. The new drummer and guitarist do fine work, Greg Graffin's voice sounds good, and the band doesn't skimp on quick tempos, heady lyrics, and choral harmonies, which is why people listen to them in the first place.
The anti-Trump theme is not a surprise, given Graffin and Co.'s long history of political protest music. "Chaos from Within" comes charging out of the gate with all the energy and righteous anger one could wish for, while "My Sanity" is a classic "folky" BR number that recalls the pastoral punk of 1992's "Generator," for example.
It's not all good news - though the record boasts stompers like "Age of Unreason," it's also got a few duds, like "Big Black Dog," which comes off like it's trying to hybridize "Bitch" by the Stones with "Black Betty." But when you've been in business since 1980, they're not all gonna be winners. Luckily, enough of them are. Too bad L7 couldn't conjure up a similar ratio.
Artists: L7 and Bad Religion
Albums: "Scatter the Rats" and "Age of Unreason"