Bad Religion's The Empire Strikes First strikes out at George W.
by Eric J. Iannelli
In case some of the broader points should still be somewhat vague, let me spell it out: Under the auspices of an illegitimate president and his truth-twisting supporters, the recent invasion of Iraq, far from being a bold humanitarian mission thwarted by Muslim ingrates, was carried out to further the interests of America's wealthiest Republicans and hordes of opportunistic businessmen who have no political affiliation other than the one which allows them to be the most greedy at any given time. Collectively and individually they invoked the ideals of Jesus, freedom, heroism and national security to justify and conceal their morally suspect, if not downright unlawful, self-aggrandizing motives.
More than one thousand U.S. soldiers have since died in Iraq while serving as the private militia of these ostensibly Christian free market ideologues. Hundreds of captives in Guantánamo Bay have been denied even the most basic rights accorded to them by the Geneva Convention and U.S. law. On the domestic front, right-wing proponents of the administration -- at both the grassroots and national level -- have demanded (often threateningly) that those harboring dissenting views stay quiet or risk censorship. The terrorists are attacking our right to free speech, they maintain, and President Bush is trying his best to stop the evildoers. As the irony continues to grow oppressively thick, the word "liberal" has simultaneously evolved into an epithet akin to "Nazi" or "child molester."
If all this sounds depressingly and frighteningly Orwellian, that's because it is. Two Minutes Hate? Watch Fox News. Room 101? Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo Bay. We are at war with X and we have always been at war with X? The Taliban, Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein -- just fill in the variable. Thought police? John Ashcroft and the U.S. Patriot Act. Newspeak? Aside from the easy target that "Bushisms" open up, the introduction of "homeland security" and "war on terror" to the language are just two examples.
Never a band to take political events lightly or miss a literary parallel, Bad Religion has released The Empire Strikes First, an album that partly aims to link Big Brother with the machinations of the Bush Administration, and to connect the current American zeitgeist with the one in which Winston Smith finds himself in 1984. An image of a television with an eye and the words "Two Minutes Hate" occupies the central spot in the liner notes; the song "Boot Stamping on a Human Face Forever" (footnoted with Orwell's prediction of the same) gives a loose reenactment of one of Winston's and Julia's tryst scenes in 1984.
That isn't to say that Bad Religion's bookshelf begins and ends with Orwell. Along with the titular nod to George Lucas' film, Tom Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel is also quoted and noted here in "The Quickening." And where necessary, the veteran punk outfit is unafraid to reference its own work. ൝st Century Digital Boy" from 1994's Stranger than Fiction alluded to No Control (1989) and Suffer (1987); on the latest album vocalist Greg Graffin asks rhetorically at one point, "How could hell be any worse?" -- a sly wink toward Bad Religion's debut full-length from 1982, as well as an indirect confirmation that the world's decision-makers have not bothered to listen in all that time.
From a purely musical standpoint, The Empire Strikes First isn't the band's most spectacular effort, even though things have improved since guitarist and founding member Brett Gurewitz rejoined the fold for the excellent Process of Belief in 2002. Some of the hooks here are stale. Some of the riffs seem dated. The title track, while one of the better tunes to be found here, sounds too much like ൝st Century Digital Boy" to be truly noteworthy, and "Boot Stamping on a Human Face Forever" is watery and limp. "To Another Abyss" wouldn't have been entirely out of place in the repertoire of one of the late-'80s hair bands. And while The Empire Strikes First's brief "Overture" isn't conspicuously poor, there isn't quite enough thematic consistency (other than Bad Religion's astute sociopolitical commentary) to warrant it.
But to focus on the few flaws risks overlooking the larger achievement. As with all of the band's output, the best tracks on The Empire Strikes First convey urgency and intensity but never sacrifice melody to the cause. "Sinister Rouge" contains all the band's trademark vocal harmonies and furious guitar wallop, as well as a drumbeat as fast as a hummingbird's wings. Familiar though these elements may be, they're assembled here in a way that's fresh and invigorating. The unmitigated energy and zig-zagging guitar assaults of "Social Suicide" and "God's Love" recall the punk band's younger (some might say halcyon) days, but these songs too are sculpted by time and experience, proving that the Bad Religion of today is not a tribute act to the one that started to reshape punk music twenty years ago.
These highs and lows aside, music has never been the sole reason behind Bad Religion's appeal. We listen because they have something to say -- and not just that; it's nearly always thought provoking, a pithy political essay. Why else would the press kit come with four double-sided pages of photocopied lyrics already featured in the liner notes? More specifically, the singular appeal of this band is the Molotov cocktail of words propelled and ignited by music, medium fusing with message. So although "The Empire Strikes First" may not be such a stretch from an earlier song, the fist-shaking chorus -- "Don't wanna live! Don't wanna give! Don't wanna be! E-M-P-I-R-E!" -- and the grim acknowledgement that "we spit and we cursed and our bleeding hearts burst" more than make up for this. And "Let Them Eat War" is like a distillation of everything that has come to positively characterize Bad Religion. The song is a perfect conflation of wit, intelligence and insight ("Let them eat war! That's how to ration the poor / Let them eat war! There's an urgent need to feed / declining pride"), potent guitar riffs ("American Jesus" comes to mind) and chugging vamps, all of which is channeled toward expanding the confines of punk (hip-hopper Sage Francis delivers one indignant verse).
If nothing else The Empire Strikes First testifies to the uniqueness of Bad Religion. Of course, in doing so it also does much more than that: it entertains, it challenges, it incites, it reaffirms. And though we instinctively tend to look upon this uniqueness as a good thing, I'm left wondering if in this case it's not to our disadvantage, if only because it suggests that the qualities embodied by Bad Religion -- intelligence, flair, vitality, fortitude, skepticism toward accepted wisdom and a philanthropic mindset -- are no longer the norm in America, but rather the exception.