The gospel according to Bad Religion

Japan Checks In On Bad Religion

Dave Hilson (Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer)

Not many punk rock bands--or, for that matter, bands of any genre--can stay at the head of the class for 22 years. But then again, not many punk acts boast a lineup that includes the president of a well-known record label and a Ph.D. candidate.

Bad Religion is one of the most influential and successful U.S. punk rock groups of all time, and two of the men behind that success are original member and Epitaph records founder Brett Gurewitz, and founding band member Greg Graffin, who is currently enrolled at Cornell University and looking to finish off his Ph.D. in zoology. The duo has a rare songwriting synergy that has enabled them to consistently produce some of the best melodic punk rock anthems around.

In fact, Graffin, who is the lead singer, recently admitted in a U.S. interview that he does his best work when writing with Gurewitz.

The group, whose lineup has fluctuated somewhat over the past two decades and currently stands at six, was first formed by Graffin in the late '70s, when the members were still high school students--and it wouldn't be overstating things to say that the band helped make Southern California the punk rock hotbed that it is today. But it's not just these things that have helped set Bad Religion apart from the crowd--it's also the subject matter they choose to sing about.

While other groups like NOFX, Blink 182 and Sum 41 are busy singing about girls and partying, Bad Religion are tackling political, social and philosophical issues. You could point to the members' advancing age--they're in their late 30s, old for punks--as one reason their attention is focused on more mature matters, but they've been doing it since the formation of the band. And their creative juices don't seem to be drying up, either.

Gurewitz (guitar) left the band in 1994 after their major label debut, Stranger Than Fiction--the group had previously released everything on Epitaph--to focus his attention on his ever-growing label. But he recently rejoined the band to help put out The Process of Belief, an album released earlier this year that lashes out at U.S. environmental policy and consumer culture, and is arguably the group's best effort in a decade.

Gurewitz and Graffin shared all songwriting and production duties on the album, which also marked the band's return to Epitaph.

It's not as though the band fell apart without Gurewitz--they put out three more albums on Atlantic Records, produced by the likes of Todd Rundgren and Ric Ocasek--but they're definitely better with him. As guitarist Brian Baker, who stepped in to fill Gurewitz's shoes while he was doing his own thing, and who still plays with the band, said in a recent Web site interview, "There's something about Brett's songwriting, especially when it's with Greg, when they write together and against each other, that really creates the best Bad Religion music." Baker says this even though he has had a hand in the songwriting duties since Gurewitz left in the mid-'90s.

While not groundbreaking--the group still relies on the their trademark combination of buzzsaw guitars, pistonlike drumming and instantly memorable melodies--the album helps remind people that punk can have a cerebral side as it strives to make listeners aware of sociopolitical issues around them.

On "Kyoto Now!," a track that takes a swipe at those nations, especially the United States, that failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, Graffin sings tongue-in-cheek "you might not think there is any wisdom in a f**cked up punk rock song," knowing full well that what he is saying is dead on the mark.

Other tracks that stick out are "Sorrow," a song about the politics of power that has received widespread airplay, and the extremely catchy opener "Supersonic," which uses pure speed to lament the frenzied pace of modern life. In true punk fashion Graffin sings "When I need to sate, I just accelerate into oblivion."

The CD is beautifully packaged for a punk release, coming with an outer covering and artistic-looking sleeve--no doubt one of the perks of having a label owner in your band.

The album is being supported by a tour that has included a headlining slot in this year's edition of the largest summer punk rock carnival, the Warped Tour, an event that Graffin says has allowed the group to get their message out to a whole new generation of punks.

Unfortunately, due to Gurewitz's workload, a lot of young punks haven't been able to see him in action. According to Baker, Gurewitz has only played in about 10 percent of the live performances. While this has made it a little easier to justify having three guitarists in the band (the other being former Circle Jerks member Greg Hetson), it hasn't been great for longtime admirers of the group. But fans here in Japan should be breathing a sigh of relief to know that Gurewitz will be accompanying the band on their four-date tour which kicks off today. Bouncing Souls, another punk band on the Epitaph label, will be the opening act, and their upbeat style should be a nice complement to Bad Religion.

Hopefully The Process of Belief will not be the last time that Bad Religion's songwriting dynamic duo decide to work together, but since Gurewitz has been devoting so much time to his label one never knows. If that is the case, this could be the last time for fans here to get out and see what is one of the most important and enduring punk acts anywhere.