Bad Religion has always seen music as a force for social change. On their latest CD entitled The Empire Strikes First, punk’s most important active band takes its weightiest stance yet on the dual themes of religion and politics. Clearly condemning the Bush administration’s doctrine of preemptive war, and questioning religion’s increasing and ever-frightening role in American politics, Bad Religion’s message proves to be more salient today than ever before and it’s conveyed with the fierce musical attack that has helped define the band, and the genre, for two decades.
The L.A. outfit’s thirteenth studio album – co-written and co-produced by vocalist Greg Graffin and guitarist Brett Gurewitz – also finds Bad Religion raising its sonic stakes. With the disc’s centerpiece, "Let Them Eat War," the band fires a roaring, three-minute missive at a certain so called compassionate conservative. Structured around a breakneck beat, blistering riffs and an apocalyptic chorus, the song – which houses a ferocious verse by rising hip/hop intellect Sage Francis – advocates an impoverished populace duped by the very Washingtonian prevaricator they’ve supported with their vote and their military service.
When Graffin sneers the following heated prose atop the band’s sparking charge, Bad Religion asserts its deep-seated interest in probing for the truth:
"There’s a prophet on a mountain and he’s making up dinner
With long division and a riding crop
Anybody can feel like a winner when it’s served up piping hot
But the people aren’t looking for a handout
They’re America’s working corps
Can this be what they voted for?"
Meanwhile, power-packed proclamations like "Sinister Rouge" and "Social Suicide" see straight through Bible-thumping deceit. The bulk of Empire is just as fiery, evidenced by the mid-disc torcher "Los Angeles Is Burning." Here, bristling guitars escort Graffin's doomsday rant about palm trees as “candles in the murder wind” while exploring the news media's role as either reflector or purveyor of reality.
If Epitaph’s flagship band sounds better than ever on The Empire Strikes First, Graffin says the roar that accompanies such scathing commentary is no accident. “After so many years of doing this, we’re really only interested in making a record, writing the songs and producing if we know it will be really good,” he explains. Picking up where the troupe left off on 2002's outstanding comeback The Process of Belief – which saw Gurewitz re-join the creative fold after a lengthy hiatus – Empire manages to trump that disc making it arguably the fiercest and most focused Bad Religion offering to date.
The group’s wall of guitars – courtesy of Gurewitz, Greg Hetson and Brian Baker – roar feverishly, driving vibrant, melodic anthems throughout the disc with the rhythmic virtuosity of Brooks Wackerman and co-founding bassist Jay Bentley pouring the musical foundation. And while each track is topical, Graffin says that, “the songs are universal enough that in ten years time they should still hold up quite well.”
Juxtaposing intellectual rigor with faith based conviction, provocative offerings like “Beyond Electric Dreams” “Atheist Peace” and “God’s Love” explore religion’s interface with science in our society. And with the stellar “Live Again – The Fall of Man,” the singer – who now holds a Ph.D in Biology – closes out this standout album of thinking person’s punk by pondering, “What good is something if you can’t have it until you die?”
Bad Religion have been stunning the music world by mixing thought, melody, attitude, speed and ability since 1980, when Graffin, Gurewitz and Bentley formed the band in suburbs of L.A.'s San Fernando Valley. In an era where major labels refused to consider American punk groups, Gurewitz formed Epitaph Records as a medium for the band's message and a crudely recorded self-titled EP was born.
The group's first long-player, 1982’s How Could Hell Be Any Worse, helped define the Southern California punk sound. By 1987, with guitarist Greg Hetson of the iconic Circle Jerks in the fold, Bad Religion crafted the epic Suffer, which is often credited for revitalizing the punk movement and ushering it into the 1990s. A prolific period yielded three acclaimed discs – ‘89’s No Control, ‘90’s Against The Grain, and ‘92’s Generator – and with its fan base ballooning the band jumped to Atlantic Records after 1993’s Recipe For Hate.
A year later, Epitaph – which experienced remarkable growth through its first decade – became an unprecedented indie phenomenon as a result of the punk renaissance it helped to instigate. Gurewitz left the band to oversee his record company full time but Bad Religion forged ahead by recruiting one-time Minor Threat and Dag Nasty guitarist Brian Baker for three Atlantic offerings and respective touring. By the start of the 21st Century, Gurewitz and Graffin had rekindled their collaborative pursuits; Gurewitz had rejoined the group and Bad Religion released its widely hailed comeback disc, The Process of Belief.
Now with the arrival of The Empire Strikes First, the band enforces the theory that the finest punk rock has always housed opinions to bolster its spirit and attitude. Quite simply, Empire is a musical Molotov, and Bad Religion is as vital as ever.