October 1, 2014
by Bryne Yancey

Influence and longevity can do strange things to one’s perception of a band. Occasionally a band is so massively influential that the dozens, if not hundreds of bands attempting to ape their style both ring false on their own and unintentionally cast a negative light on the accomplishments and talent of the original band. Being inundated with a second-rate, rehashed version of something that used to be better is never a fun feeling; it can be hollow, uninspiring, dreary, demoralizing.

That’s a lot how Rancid’s career has felt in the past decade. Emerging in the mid-1990s as one of, if not the preeminent punk band of Epitaph’s most successful and influential era, the band’s earnest blend of hard-nosed street punk and buoyant ska inspired a host of imitators, many of whom lacked the talent, drive or worldview to make a simple, inherently austere type of music into something interesting or memorable. Rancid’s ability to write melodies and choruses always set them apart; these guys weren’t just dangerous-looking punks with weird tattoos and questionable singing voices. It wasn’t just their near-perfect timing that got them over—they could write great songs with a staggering ease compared to their peers and their imitators. But then something weird and unfortunate happened: After a run of records underrated in their diversity (the driving street punk of 1994’s Let’s Go and 1995’s And Out Come The Wolves, 1998’s sprawling, smartly experimental Life Won’t Wait, 2000’s Rancid and its abrupt, rough-around-the-edges, furious hardcore) Rancid began to poorly imitate themselves. Rancid 2000 was going to be a hard act to follow no matter what, but 2003’s Indestructible—the band’s lone sojourn with a major label, albeit a covert one almost ten years too late—felt like a rudimentary attempt to introduce Rancid’s sound to a larger audience, a weird non-acknowledgment of the band’s crossover success during punk’s biggest era of mainstream accessibility. “Ruby Soho” and “Time Bomb” were radio staples for years. Let’s Go had gone gold; Wolves had gone platinum. Who were they trying to fool or convert? The album seemed watered down, convenient, a safe choice for a band who had rarely made them in the past. Its follow-up, 2009’s Let The Dominoes Fall, came a similar sonic place but had even less personality. The band sounded tired and, even worse, out of ideas, which for a record boasting 19 songs in 45 minutes, is perhaps a feat in and of itself. Rancid, once a pillar of the modern punk scene who, even with two subpar albums still had written far more good-to-great songs than bad ones, had become at best an afterthought and at worst, an easy punching bag. Fans had resigned to the fact that perhaps Rancid, the soundtrack to their fiery, smelly, denim-adorned youth, were creatively bankrupt and, even worse, hadn’t figured it out for themselves yet.

But then something interesting happened: Rancid seemed to gain an implicit understanding of the disappointment. They also, oddly enough, started doing a lot of cool and innovative things on the internet atypical of most punk bands their age: 2010’s Live in The Living Room video series depicted the band as acutely cognizant of their legacy through heavily-contrasted clips of newly, and often starkly, rearranged versions of classics like “Tenderloin” and “She’s Automatic.” It was creative and different and fun, something Rancid hadn’t been in some time, and it reignited interest in the band for many. In 2012, they released a standalone new single, “Fuck You,” for free download. Rudimentary title aside, it signaled a bouncy, anthemic, abrasive return to energetic form for the band—one can’t exactly sleepwalk through a song titled “Fuck You.”

Rancid seem to have taken their time in putting together Honor Is All We Know, out Oct. 27 on Hellcat, but unlike with Dominoes, there’s a sense that this record is a make-or-break one for them—if it’s not warmly received, it could be the band’s death knell, or at the very least the first step toward relegation to a greatest hits touring act. That notion is made even more apparent in the way the record was introduced: An innovative performance music video featuring not one but three new songs in "Collision Course,“ "Honor Is All We Know” and “Evil’s My Friend.”

The production, again from Brett Gurewitz, is immediately apparent: This sounds, in the best way possible, like it was recorded in 1995. “Collision Course” might feel a bit like a Wolves-era leftover on the surface, but this context and presentation does wonders for it: Lars Fredriksen looks cool and sounds caustic. The entire band are displaying a welcoming amount of energy which, oddly, makes the song sound better. They look like they’re having a blast and, in a current age of bands decidedly not doing that in neither a live nor simulated live setting, it’s unexpected and infectious. The title track sees Fredriksen and the band riding a catchy guitar solo and deep vocals into effective gang vocals in the chorus, and then—and then!—Matt fucking Freeman, punk bassist genius and far and away Rancid’s best vocalist (seriously) takes the mic for the second verse. I hope that delightful frog in his throat never goes away. Tim Armstrong powerfully takes the lead for the third and final verse, enunciating, sounding more youthful than he has in years. If it sounds like I’m devolving into hysterics, it’s because I think “Honor Is All We Know” is completely wonderful. Rancid then pay homage to one of their biggest influences, the Clash, in “Evil’s My Friend,” with nods to ska, reggae, and dancehall. Fredriksen bobs, sways and two-steps like a maniac. The harsh gang vocals from Armstrong and Freeman meld perfectly with the song’s bouncy predisposition. The organ is on point. Rancid sound young, vibrant and vital. If these three songs are enough to go on, Honor Is All We Know could end up bringing Rancid back into the conversation they deserve to be in as one of the most important punk bands not just of their era, but any era.