I walked outside before dawn one day last fall in Redlands, CA to find a firestorm racing across the nearby hills, leaving a ghostly crimson light flickering in and out of picture windows and windshields, and lending an eerie glow to the early morning fog. The inferno seemed a horribly apt fit for the historical moment-- a kind of purification by fire delivered to a nation choking on official lies, war and joblessness. Greg Graffin and Brett Gurewitz of Bad Religion, the twenty-something year-old L.A. punk band, were paying attention; a few weeks later, they went into the studio to record the searing "Los Angeles Is Burning", a grim celebration of environmental rape and the subsequent payback.
That's just one great moment from Bad Religion's The Empire Strikes First, 14 songs that are fresh, focused, and absolutely alive in the way that great rock 'n' roll energizes everything it touches. It's been a long road from their early-80s beginnings, but these days, the primary concerns of Graffin and Gurewitz are not the band's intricate (and subtle) years-long evolution; they're first and foremost topical songwriters focused on domestic chaos and its global manifestation. Bad Religion is, after all, the outfit that, during the first Gulf War in 1991, shared a Maximum Rock 'n' Roll split seven-inch with radical MIT professor Noam Chomsky, who, like them, is locked into the tense present and dedicated to exposing the forces who lie and disguise to deepen and enforce human misery.
The truth is that after 20+ years, Bad Religion meet the present day not only unfettered by nostalgia, but hardwired into the moment. Fans take the band's growth and standards for granted. It's tempting to say-- though impossible to prove-- that the The Empire Strikes First is a such a terrific album because vocalist Graffin and guitarist Gurewitz, the band's most important creative forces, are responding to the death, desolation, and destruction of war, and to the concurrent attacks on the Bill of Rights; it seems more than just a happy accident that the band has just delivered one of its most charged and inspired records in years.
Bad Religion's most important elements are intact here: Graffin's voice and politically informed lyrics, and Gurewitz's imaginative guitar work and background vocals. They wouldn't likely contest the suggestion that the use of simple elements equates to a formula, but the genius of Graffin and Gurewitz is how they take these simple elements and twist them-- unexpected chord changes, short breakdowns, quick drum fills, and increasingly sophisticated, sweet-sounding vocal arrangements so rich you could trade them for military arms.
"Sinister Rouge" is a study in contrasts; a wall of cinematic harmonies comes at you like choir practice in a cave, while Gurewitz's guitar is so close it could touch you (whether you'd like it to or not). "Los Angeles Is Burning" lifts a lesson from the band's own backyard, but "Let Them Eat War" is a classic Bad Religion anthem. Graffin spits out a variation on the theme of old-school punk politics locking arms with the American worker in order to explain how fighting a war serves the interests of the capitalists who keep them down. You'd think (or I would anyway) that any song with the lyric, "You never stole from the rich to give to the poor/ All he ever gave to them was a war/ And a foreign enemy to deplore," should be stopped before it kills again. But don't pull the switch-- the band rocks along at high speed beneath Graffin (and his vocal uses the whole scale), while Gurewitz delivers aggressively graceful, ultra-melodic fills, and sugary harmonies to glue the chorus together.
The irony of it all is that the band's call-and-response vocal arrangements are straight out of a Baptist church house, as are the rich harmonies and the reliance on one man-- in this case, Graffin-- to testify to (and for) the congregation. Bad Religion's magic doesn't stem as much from their political lyrics as from the airtight arrangements and thick, sweet harmonies that bring the lyrics to you, and interestingly, are also the antithesis of the social rebellion the band advocates. A case could be made (and sometimes I make it) that the band resorts to the very things it deplores in order to get across a message, and that in the process, they demand a kind of allegiance that a cynic might call unhealthy. But if Graffin and Gurewitz are willing to return to the well to help the innocent climb out, the end certainly justifies the means.
-J.H. Tompkins, August 3rd, 2004