"The Empire Strikes First" gets another great review!

It's hard to believe that Epitaph Records' Bad Religion started making rocket-fueled political punk records back during the first Reagan administration. But here they are, some 20-odd years later, still as passionate, politically-charged, and -- perhaps most unexpectedly -- rockin' as ever. The Empire Strikes First picks up where last year's The Process Of Belief left off, with Epitaph honcho Brett Gurewitz still on board as a full-fledged member of the band, sharing guitar duties with punk legends Greg Hetson and Brian Baker, and production credit with frontman Greg Gaffin. That this band intends to take no prisoners becomes immediately apparent on the album's first track, "Sinister Rouge," one of several attacks on the hypocrisy of organized religion, long a favorite Bad Religion theme: "Child molesters and Jesuits/ holding secret conference/ underneath the Pontiff's nose/ and only God will ever know..." Gaffin has always been known as one of the most aggressively intelligent lyricists in rock, and that hasn't changed either; unlike most of his contemporaries in the punk world, he steadfastly refuses to talk down to his audience. "Atheist Peace," another diatribe against religion, starts with the line, "Maybe it's too late for intellectual debate/ but a residue of confusion remains/ Changing with the times and developmentally challenged minds / are the average citizen's source of pain." That's a lot to take in, but Gaffin brings his point home bluntly: " 'Tell me what we're fighting for' / I don't remember anymore." How's that for a one-line summation of the "developmentally challenged" average citizen's reaction to Iraq! Other tracks tackle topics like environmental concern ("Los Angeles Is Burning,") "The Quickening" by new drummer Brooks Wackerman and C. Wollard quotes Thomas Wolfe, while perhaps the album's strongest attack directly on the Bush administration, "Let Them Eat War," is credited not to Gaffin or Gurewitz but to guitarist Brian Baker, bassist Jay Bentley, Wackerman, and rapper Sage Francis (of the Non-Prophets,) asking pointedly, "But the people aren't looking for a handout / they're America's working corps /Can this be what they voted for?" The Empire Strikes First offers no answers -- Gaffin wrote years ago that you won't find your Salvation in a Bad Religion song. It only asks questions, important questions that America needs to ask itself. Let's hope that America's listening. (Epitaph Records)

Jim Testa
Jersey Beat