The Empire Strikes First
As invigorating as it is inspiring, triumphant as it is heartbreaking, Bad Religion's latest is more than great... it's important.
July 19, 2004 - The first thing you'll notice when you open the jewel case of Bad Religion's The Empire Strikes First--which is something I would recommend you do as soon as possible--is a lone phrase on the back of the album's liner notes. Excerpted from the lyrics of the record's third song and poignantly printed in red on black is the line "It's time to turn the tide," which serves both as a powerful statement on our nation's current affairs and an effective summation of the album to follow.
The members of Bad Religion are angry. And this is their diatribe. Their anger is expressed not through callous hollering of uncontrolled bursts of venomous rage and the gratuitous dropping of f-bombs, but by quoting thinkers such as Thomas Wolfe and George Orwell. Not once does lead singer Greg Graffin raise his voice, resort to the immature employ of overt sexual puns on the President's surname or say a single word that couldn't be broadcast over the radio unedited. The man is beyond that and moreover, he believes you are, too.
And even though this album showcases a band in control, one can't help but notice that there is a compelling vehemence bubbling just beneath the surface. There is nary a track on this album that is not driven by some sort of purpose. Each individual song has something to fight against, and the sum total of their combination is a representation of something to fight for. The result is nothing short of a modern work of art.
Greg Graffin, Jay Bentley, Greg Hetson, Brian Baker, Brooks Wackerman, and Mr. Brett Gurewitz takes to the podium with "Overture," a simmering, one-minute instrumental that fades gracefully into the record's first lyrical conquest. The dominant message on this album, one infused within the lines of roughly half of the disc's tracks, is the inherent danger involved in our society's seemingly out-of-control transition from the practice of open-minded and tolerant religious faith (or lack thereof) to the zealous fundamentalism of blind and pervasive "piety" which, Bad Religion argues, is crucifying the sciences (Graffin, BTW, holds a Ph.D. in biology) and driving the increasingly-destructive tank of our nation's politics. "Sinister Rouge" begins this particular polemic by attacking the recent scandals of the Roman Catholic church--"Child molesters and Jesuits/Holding secret conference/Underneath the Pontiff's nose/And only God will ever know" intones Graffin in one of the album's more arousingly controversial stanzas.
The band's relentlessly abrasive attack on "bad" religion--pun most certainly intended, in the interest of full disclosure--does not conclude with "Sinister Rouge." "Social Suicide" ("I don't even know if I can ever find Truth/But I'm sure it won't come from following you"), "Atheist Peace," "All There Is," and no fewer than five other tracks concern themselves with the subject in one degree of capacity or another. One might think that a treatment of this magnitude towards a certain topic of discussion would equate to mind-numbing overkill, but Bad Religion simply takes an altogether different dimension of the issue in each individual song and gives it its own fair share of poetic justice. Lesser punk outfits may have been content to dedicate a single song to the subject of religion, but not this act; they take their time, disseminating their insight in small pieces, seamlessly molding them into an elegant collective of theses. And you know what? The technique is brilliantly executed and entirely successful.
When Bad Religion is not lamenting the entropy of faith, they are taking on what seems to be a rather characteristic target of 2004's punk offerings: the current man in the Oval Office. "There's a prophet on a mountain," declares Graffin in the opening line of "Let Them Eat War," a song easily identified by the repeated proclamation of its satirical title. "Can this be what they voted for?" (It would be all too easy for Bad Religion to follow up that particular lyric with something akin to "No, they voted for Gore." But again, the band elevates the song above such a clichéd and impotent stab; they are concerned not with the past, but the present, and the bleak future it appears to be shaping.)
Bushian policy is also the sacrificial lion of the album's catchy title track and "Boot Stamping On A Human Face Forever," a song which derives its title from George Orwell's dejected vision of the future. Though Orwell would make for a valuable resource in a song designed to denounce the Patriot Act, Bad Religion chooses instead to hold up the author's chilling illustration as a portent of what our society is destined to become should we continue to reject the views of those willing to question our governmental authorities: "With good books and looks on their side/And hearts bursting with national pride/They sang songs and went along for the ride and the other side complied." Notice how songwriters Graffin and Gurewitz shift the word "good" from the position immediately before "looks" (as would be expected) to the one preceding "books" suddenly, the band's distaste for theocracy briefly shares the spotlight with their other principal message. If you appreciate subtle turns of intellectual poetry such as this, you're likely to find The Empire Strikes First to be an absolute treasure.
The album's catchiest song, "Los Angeles Is Burning," is the disc's sole attack on the nation's overzealous and exploitative media ("They're only trying to peddle reality," Graffin sings). And in a brilliant move, the record concludes with what is arguably its most emotional and poignant track, "Live Again (The Fall Of Man)." To attempt to attach a clear and definite meaning to this particular piece would be a great disservice to all of the listeners who, like me, are certain to wear out their rewind buttons as they quest to attach to its words their own particular purpose.
The Empire Strikes First is precisely what punk rock--and the United States of America--needs: a smartly-written, expertly-assembled political album that, rather than telling you what you should believe, brings certain views to the table and attempts to defend them without jumping down your throat. If you have a mind and a heart for that sort of thing, ownership of this album is almost your patriotic duty. Rarely does one come across a punk record that so urgently asks you to use not just your ears, but what's between them.