Current events revive Bad Religion's rage
In 1980, the punk-rock band Bad Religion formed out of the desire of its members to express themselves, and particularly to express their anger.
Twenty-four years later, the desire endures.
On the evidence of the seminal Los Angeles band's latest album, "The Empire Strikes First," the anger, which had abated for a while, has returned.
"We walked into the studio angry about the way things are and saying, 'It has to change,' " said bassist and founding member Jay Bentley. "The world has been a complacent place for a while, but the time and place we're living in is enough to anger anyone who has open eyes and is willing to go beyond what Fox News is willing to present."
While rage is a common creative font for rock bands, Bad Religion became a seminal punk force largely because of its ability to articulate its rage in an intelligent, forceful way.
The band is touring as part of the Vans Warped Tour, appearing Tuesday at the Marcus Amphitheater forecourt at Maier Festival Park.
"The Empire Strikes First" stands as Bad Religion's finest album in a decade: a 40-minute, 14-song attack containing as much melodic and lyrical variation as punk is ever likely to have.
This is owed in large part, Bentley said, to current events, such as the war in Iraq.
"Writing and putting out an album like this means that you understand and are aware of what's happening around you and are going to focus much more," he said. "I've heard other bands say they won't talk about it, and that's not cool. . . . I don't think it matters if you're a punk-rock band or the Dixie Chicks; this is the time to try to make the change."
Although the album roils with songs about the political climate ("Let Them Eat War," the title track), it also features broadsides about predatory religious figures ("Sinister Rouge"), tyranny ("Boot Stamping on a Human Face Forever") and the band's hometown ("Los Angeles Is Burning"). It also pares back the tendency of Bad Religion's primary songwriters, singer Greg Graffin and guitarist Brett Gurewitz, to load each song with as much information as possible.
"We used to say, 'How do you express a lifetime of anger in 58 seconds?' " Bentley said. "In the beginning, we were using a lot of sarcasm and double-entendres. As we've gotten a little better at being able to express ourselves, we wanted to be more direct about what we're saying. If we're not mad, we're just confused. In a sense, this record was based on not wanting to be misunderstood."
Bentley added that the band's focus needed some tightening after 2002, when Gurewitz returned to Bad Religion after nearly a decade's absence. The first album from this reunion, "The Process of Belief," also marked the band's return to Epitaph, the label Gurewitz founded in the 1980s and has run ever since.
"With 'The Process of Belief,' it was like a new band finding its feet," Bentley said.
And with the band's participation in this summer's run of the Warped Tour, Bad Religion remains at the forefront of a movement that was never just about having a good time.
"We've always tried to focus on larger issues," Bentley said. "Musicians are renowned for being the canary in the coal mine, the mirror to society.
"Now, you're just relegated to being an entertaining clown without a thought process of your own. But that's not for us."
By JON M. GILBERTSON