Bad Brains were never going to be the top act in rock, let alone hardcore punk, the subgenre they essentially invented.
One reason for that is obvious: They're African American. When the band emerged out of Washington, D.C. in the late '70s, both mainstream and underground rock were almost entirely white and, frankly, not especially tuned into their chosen form's history of cultural expropriation.
Old and/or dead black rockers like Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix sometimes got their due in this pale-face environment. But the inventive guitarists in Funkadelic and other contemporary African American players rarely did.
Bad Brains had other problems, too. Although the original members embraced Rastafarianism, one half of the band had an unquenchable jones for reggae, while the other half maintained catholic tastes, including longstanding attractions to the heaviest of metal, high-speed prog, fusion and punk. That made for delicious and at times mind-blowing musical contrasts on their self-titled 1982 debut on the cassette-only label and the more polished Ric Ocasek-produced 1983 release Rock for Light.
But the center couldn't hold. By 1987, H.R., the band's charismatic lead singer, was playing reggae under his own name with his brother (and Bad Brains drummer) Earl Hudson. Meanwhile, the band's brutally brilliant guitarist Dr. Know and bassist Darryl Jenifer continued to splinter speakers under the Bad Brains moniker.
The original members came together several other times (most notably on 1995's God of Love). And despite an endorsement from grunge king Kurt Cobain, they seemed doomed to be the kind of act that earned far more in insider respect than in CD sales.
Now, it would be great if Bad Brains' new CD Build a Nation changed all that. Simply put, the original lineup is in top form. The band remains phenomenally precise on the warp-speed hardcore tracks ("Jah People Make the World Go Round" is the rare spiritually focused track that can also blister paint), and the dub-wise reggae cuts are the kind of sweet, good-hearted balms that help you climb out of the crap and see this big, bright world for what it really is.
H.R.'s trademark nasal delivery remains otherworldly, and Dr. Know has plenty to show neophyte shredders on both "Universal Peace" and the tight, curt title track. My question is whether there are enough kids out there who can get past the Bad Brains' gray-beard status and take their roiling output for what it is: a big, whooshing puff of the divine afflatus.
If they can, this most innovative of hardcore bands will finally reach the higher round. Which is exactly where they always belonged.