|Bad Religion - The Empire Strikes First|
|Music Disc Reviews Audio CD|
|Written by Dan MacIntosh|
|Tuesday, 08 June 2004|
Bad Religion may be one of Southern California’s longest-running punk outfits, but this group’s angry protest music is now perfectly suited for our current troubled times. You just knew that W’s invasion of Iraq wouldn’t sit well with this mainstay’s primary writing team of vocalist Greg Graffin and guitarist Brett Gurewitz. Not surprisingly, the second Mr. Bush receives a large dosage of criticism throughout this album. And while political thought fuels much of this new Bad Religion disc, “The Empire Strikes First” is also jam-packed with endless varieties of social commentary. Yep, Bad Religion is still brainy yet bad to the bone.
“The Empire Strikes First” is an album that follows the fast ‘n’ loud rules of authentic punk rock, but it also might be the cleanest-sounding punk album you’ll likely hear this year. It’s for good reason, for example, that “Los Angeles Is Burning” sounds like punk-meets-Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, since the great Mike Campbell (guitarist for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers) gives it one of his patented extended-note solos. This song uses SoCal’s regular fire season as a metaphor for its troubled social atmosphere, and lays it all out with the urgency of a panicked 911 call. Other highlights include “Sinister Rouge,” which races with double-timing punk, and “Atheist Peace,” which gallops to an almost cowpunk beat. The recording almost never slows down for a breather, although “To Another Abyss” is nearly a ballad.
As might be expected, organized religion takes a few hard hits on this latest one. In addition to “Sinister Rouge,” which exposes the Catholic Church’s well-publicized misdeeds, “God’s Love” also critiques Christianity’s general behavior of loveless-ness. “Let Them Eat War,” along with the album’s title track, speaks out against the United States’ international military activities, while at the same time it questions this country’s empathy (or lack thereof) for its poor. While Bad Religion’s strength is in musically analyzing organizations, the group also knows how to get personal. “Boot Stamping on a Human Face Forever,” for instance, is the character study of an abused woman that shows great empathy. “All There Is” holds out its hand to almost anybody who might be feeling a little down. On it, Graffin sings, “This song goes out to all the hopeless sinners.” It sounds a little like Jackson Browne gone punk, if you can picture that.
Not everything works here, however. “Beyond Electric Dreams” has a really complicated, intellectual lyrical structure that is difficult to grasp. It nevertheless has a wonderful bass part and bullhorn-like affected vocals, which still make it worth the listening. The album’s lyrics are mostly straightforward and to the point, which is an approach that would have worked much better on this song. But one out of 14 ain’t a bad ratio at all.
If every band was as smart as Bad Religion is, Warped tours might attract a few more eggheads, and a few less tattooed and pierced ones. Simply put, Bad Religion always equals good punk.