Review Summary: Still creating music on the foundation of anti-establishment politics and progressive social views, Bad Religion returns for their thirteenth full length album, “The Empire Strikes First,” with an explosive edge comparable to “Against the Grain.”
Bad Religion has certainly matured in an unprecedented direction. The persecuting lyrics of old have been toned down a notch to a level of examination. Still creating music on the foundation of anti-establishment politics and progressive social views, Bad Religion returns for their thirteenth full length album, “The Empire Strikes First,” with an explosive edge comparable to “Against the Grain.”
Greg Graffin is the centerpiece of the veteran punk band Bad Religion, normally writing lyrics with Brett Gurewitz regarding the futility of life. The most significant difference between “The Empire Strikes First” and previous albums is a direct assay of belief in God, as opposed to an attack of religion. Graffin recently released a book with co-author Professor Preston Jones, entitled “Is Belief in God Good, Bad or Irrelevant?” After listening to “The Empire Strikes First,” the book felt like an extension of the concise masterful lyrical work. A great consistency as a result of this progress is that Bad Religion develops a defining style on the album. This unique approach is a progression in the wisdom of the band, exposing a seemingly scientific inquiry of life, no doubt influenced by the experience of Graffin who holds a doctorate degree in Evolutionary Biology.
The vocal harmonies which are a trademark of Bad Religion’s juxtaposition of emotive cries and thought provoking lyrics are fluid in between the crashing drum beats made infamous on “Suffer.” Nearly every track during the first half of the album is explosive, while the second half of the album is exceptionally catchy. The clever lyrical content is showcased on “To Another Abyss.” With a haunting cry of “…and it chills me to the bone that I’m so far away from home,” superseding the brilliant “And you know that it’s a bitch when you learn to scratch that itch of blatant fallibility,” the song recognizes the insignificance of man. The song “God’s Love” also begs for an answer with “There’s no justice / Just a cause and no cure / And a bounty of suffering / It seems we all endure / And what I’m frightened of / Is that they call it “God’s love.” With clever lines and probing rhymes, Bad Religion goes beyond exemplifying an understanding of belief and attempts an evolution of punk rock.
When bands age they generally devolve in terms of losing the raw sound and edge that was present in their early years. They usually become conservative to satisfy larger audiences and as a result, cannot match the same spunk that gripped their original fans. The greatest bands are the ones that can recreate their sound and manifest any approach to their liking. Bad Religion’s music on “The Empire Strikes First” replaces the notion of getting old with an atmosphere of wisdom and the spunk needed to convince old and new fans alike that they aren’t dinosaurs. With complete control over their sound, Bad Religion sets the breakneck pace of “Sinister Rouge” between verses to remove any traces of dull instrumentation. Bad Religion lifts and drops the tempo and energy of each song at will, using their guitars as the fuel for the transitions. Brian Baker (Minor Threat, Dag Nasty, Government Issue and more) has a lot of experience in punk rock as he’s been playing the bass and guitar for over 20 years, providing the majority of the solos on the album. His work on “God’s Love” and “The Empire Strikes First” makes Bad Religion’s previous verses linger in the mind of the listener but go above being a subtlety in between Graffin’s familiar voice and Brooks Wackerman’s masterful beats.
Previous albums by Bad Religion, including “Recipe for Hate” and “No Control,” took direct shots at the concept of God, with songs like “Don’t Pray on Me” and the cynical and remarkable “Big Bang.” However, the specific change of approach that Bad Religion has decided upon is noticed clearly in songs like “All There Is” and “Live Again.” With “All There Is,” Graffin sings “In my rectory of doubt / I kneel to pray like one devout.” These lyrical territories are uncharted by Bad Religion, who are pursuing answers to seal the deal on the many questions raised by life. In “Live Again,” Graffin mentions the beliefs of the faithful with “Drunk with the assertions they know they can't defend / Confident that they might live again / Live again! Live again! Would you give it all up to live again?” Surely this question has been on Graffin’s mind for some time, as he attempts to understand what drives the faithful in an apparently hopeless endeavor.
Bad Religion’s efforts in the last quarter of the century have been the primary influence in punk rock. It is evident if you listen to many modern punk records, or if you ask a member of Pennywise. With “The Empire Strikes First,” Bad Religion goes beyond their formula and creates a new masterpiece to light a fire in the mind of the typical punk.