The Empire Strikes First

Bad Religion

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The Empire Strikes First Review

by Johnny Loftus

In 2004, Bad Religion supplemented a magazine of reissues with one in the chamber called The Empire Strikes First. Given the state of affairs and activism of peers like NOFX's Fat Mike, it's natural for Greg Graffin, Brett Gurewitz, and company to point their measured seethe and trademark erudition against shady politics and policies of preemptive security. "We strike first and we're unrehearsed/Here we go again to stage the greatest show on heaven and earth," the title track rants. But Bad Religion was never just a catchy name, as "God's Love" illustrates yet again. And society doesn't get a pass, taken to task for ignorance in "Social Suicide" and suffered as the source of Graffin's profound cynicism in "To Another Abyss." So the band's as indignant as ever, and that's important. The punk-pop kids in the drive-thru and hanging out at half-pipes need to see the graybeards bringing the big issue pain train. But it helps if those issues are bound to strong melodies, and in this department Bad Religion doesn't disappoint. "Let Them Eat War" features a stinging lead guitar figure and the usual muscular chug; outsider rap poet Sage Francis makes an appearance in the middle. Opener "Overture" is a brooding instrumental, the sound of punk in a neutered Orwell future -- it bursts into a million pieces in the thrusting fists of "Sinister Rouge" and the aforementioned "Suicide." (Empire's lyrics are attended by footnotes -- including Orwell -- à la 1992's Generator.) Those BR harmonies rise and fall behind a pleadingly angry Graffin in "All There Is," and one of the band's three (!) guitarists adds a solo blister. Best might be "Los Angeles Is Burning," not surprisingly inspired by the California wildfires of 2003. "Palm trees are candles in the murder wind/So many lives are on the breeze even the stars are ill at ease" -- the track's as powerfully melodic as it is darn angry. The Empire Strikes First isn't a return to Bad Religion at its most vitriolic and unstoppable -- whether that could ever really happen is unclear, and probably unnecessary. Unnecessary, because Bad Religion is best when standing defiant in the way of whatever hate and shenanigans are currently inhabiting our collective psyche. Their tone doesn't change, but the battles are always changing. Watch out, evildoers -- Bad Religion is in your rear-view, and they're gaining.

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