No matter how much it pushes its songs into the So-Cal punk framework it helped create nearly 20 years ago, there's no getting around the fact the Bad Religion of 2004 doesn't have the muscle or firepower of its predecessor. People get old, hair gets streaks of grey and bellies get a bit saggy. That's to be expected.
Bad Religion, unlike their punk elder-statesmen counterparts The Descendents, The Angelic Upstarts and Cock Sparrer, have aged gracefully. Instead of putting on an embarrassing and transparent sham and pretending its inspirations haven't changed over the course of two decades, Bad Religion's The Empire Strikes First shows the So-Cal six-piece isn't afraid to grow up.
Bad Religion drops all pretense of acting out escapades of 20-year-old punks. If you want hard-hitting, muscular punk, check out Against the Grain, Suffer or No Control. The middle-aged Bad Religion, with its stiffening joints, aching backs and doctoral degrees lets the speed and power of its salad days rest in the past. The Empire Strikes First rests on something befitting a band of Bad Religion's stature: wisdom.
The Empire comes out with a bit more punch than the band's past two albums, but that's not the point. It could sit comfortably with the band's early '90s Atlantic Records releases, were it not for the extremely focused, topical songs, which show that there's a thing or two about rage that can't be summed up by glossy production, layers of backing vocals and, despite having three separate guitar-slingers, low-in-the-mix guitars. An introduction track nicks the sort of operatic vocals usually found on Sisters of Mercy or Phantom of the Opera albums; soon after that, the band launches into its most focused attack on the status quo. Returning to the dogma-questioning themes that inspired its name, Bad Religion walks up to Focus on the Family's doorstep and throws down the gauntlet: "God's Love" blasts a creator that'd carelessly set forth crime and pain. "Sinister Rouge" ferrets out the hypocritical corruption that runs rampant with molesters, embezzlers and witch-hunters in organized religion.
Of course, the band doesn't stop at the walls of the church. "Atheist Peace" calls out politicians who hide behind bibles and lead us into wars simply to shoulder the Christian's burden. That's about where all hell breaks loose: Somebody has to call the administration to the carpet, and it's Bad Religion. The title track references the imperial aims of recent pseudo-wars. "Let Them Eat War," written with the help of Anti- Records' indie hip-hop MC Sage Francis, launches a vicious and unflinching attack on George W. Bush. "Boot Stamping on a Human Face Forever" quotes George Orwell's 1984, with an equally dystopic view of modern living.
For the first time in years, Bad Religion has a clear-cut enemy, a polar opposite at which it can direct its considerable ideological firepower. Where The New America (2000, Atlantic) and The Gray Race (1996, Atlantic) grumbled at life in general, The Empire Strikes First hits out at a classic triptych of targets -- religion, power politics and their intersection -- without sounding dated, cliché or silly.
Bad Religion's move to more subtle -- and therefore less out-and-out punk -- as it ages can't mask one thing: The Empire Strikes First harnesses the sort of political discontent that's been absent from punk rock since Reagan left the Oval Office. It makes for good music -- so much so that Bad Religion doesn't need the fury of its early years releases to make it abundantly clear it's as pissed as ever. One of the best Bad Religion albums to hit since it left Epitaph in the first place, The Empire Strikes First proves the band isn't going soft as it gets older.
- Matt Schild