As much as The Process Of Belief was celebrated as a comeback record, one was left wondering, after all the hype and excitement of its release had passed, where Bad Religion would go from there. After all, a killer return to form twenty years into a career is quite an accomplishment, but sustaining that energy is a more difficult task entirely. More than a few people I spoke with had assumed Process would turn out to be a fitting swan song at the end of an already prolific career.
While these dire predictions fizzled rather quickly, the question remained of what form was this new era of Bad Religion would take. It turns out that life made that decision for the band, and like so many of their peers they've begun to take a very activist approach to the policies of Bush administration. There's certainly something to be said about the ability of conservative US governments to light a fire under the collective ass of the punk scene.
Yet while some bands fighting this battle have fallen into a pattern of sloganeering, Bad Religion's years of skill and insight have allowed them to craft one of the most literate statements our scene has yet made. Even The Empire Strikes First's most forthright political songs seem to be written with longevity in mind. While the band references what we've all seen repeated on the evening news they do so in a way that won't date their work when all this has passed. The title track is a perfect example, with it's sarcastic look at preemptive strike policy: "We strike first and we're unrehearsed / Here we go again to stage the greatest show on heaven and earth / Come on! Get your moneys worth." However if the war's rekindled the band's fighting spirit, the agenda of the radical religious right in has brought it to a full burn. Bad Religion truly lives up to their name with "Live Again - The Fall Of Man," "God's Love" and "Atheist Peace" among others. Yet again these messages are delivered with the poise and wisdom other bands never approach. Greg Graffin's soul-searching lyricism is at the same time thoughtful and indignant.
This record stands testament to the greatness that is the Graffin / Gurewitz songwriting team. The duo has always been known for putting together huge, memorable melodic punk rock songs and this is no exception. The single "Los Angeles Is Burning" has the type of chorus you start singing to yourself without realizing. "All There Is" features one of the band's most accomplished arrangements in recent memory. Graffin sings "Contend upon a rail of pain for just a pail of rain" with a wonderfully pleasing harmony and one of those prefect pauses before the band explodes into the chorus. Drummer Brooks Wackerman continues to amaze, particularly in the raging "Sinister Rouge." The double bass drumming is new for the band, one of a few tricks they try out successfully on the record. "Beyond Electric Dreams" features some tasteful electronic work from Mr. Brett's co-conspirators in Error. Street poet Sage Francis guests on "Let Them Eat War" in what's a surprisingly well-integrated hip-hop contribution to a rock song. The track is highlight of the record, showcasing the interplay between the band's three guitarists and lyrically tackling the social impact of religion, poverty and war.
The bottom line is that Bad Religion sounds amazing here. Throughout their Atlantic years the criticism always lingered that their recorded output simply didn't live up the Suffer era in terms of energy and drive. While this doesn't stylistically return to that territory, it shows the band charging forward with their guns blazing and that puts to rest any nostalgic urge for them to retread on their past. Like Process before it, The Empire Strikes First shows Bad Religion on top of their game, neither dwelling on their early glories nor held back by their late 90s slump. This is every bit as exciting, rocking and relevant as one would hope.
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