The Empire Strikes First (Epitaph)
by Tim Den
Sure, The Process of Belief was one helluva a comeback, but it contained as many duds as it did gems – a problem that has plagued Bad Religion since ’94’s masterpiece Stranger Than Fiction. So it is with great surprise that – in my opinion – the band have managed to come up with a classic album 10 years after their prime.
The Empire Strikes First smartly avoids the clunky, dinosaur-sized mid-tempo stompers that permeated non-Brett albums like No Substance and The New America, instead focusing on driving home the kind of affectual, somber, minor-based melodies that dominated Generator and Suffer. Think “Anesthesia” with the drumming twice as fast and the adrenaline doubled, and you pretty much have instant anthems “All There Is” and “God’s Love” (two of the band’s best ever). And speaking of the drumming, Brooks Wackerman finally sounds like part of a band instead of a jazz prodigy soloing over punk rock. His fills are tasteful, his accents well-placed, and his enthusiasm is infectious. It’s hard not to rev your engine when “Sinister Rouge” kicks in, a whirlpool of energy and pristine melodies that you can’t (and don’t want) to escape from.
Lyrically, Bad Religion have remained staunchly anti-stupidity, and – The Empire Strikes First doesn’t break from tradition. A Thomas Wolfe quote here (the beautiful “oh lost and by the wind grieved ghost come back to me” from Look Homeward Angel), a George Orwell reference there (“Boot Stamping on a Human Face Forever”), a metaphorical existentialism-in-practice for the kids (“Here glaring cold in the crystalline geometry of night, obscuring form and tracing faceless fears of suprahuman immensity… an atom of atoms on a juttering red spattered synagogue of granite as it crouches literally in space, a frozen amoral giant gazing heavenward forever”), and I have once again sworn my allegiance to these men who refuse to preach below SAT standards. Because, beyond political sarcasm (“Let Them Eat War”), religious condemnations (“Live Again [The Fall of Man]), and disgust at the media (“Los Angeles Is Burning”), Bad Religion’s triumph has always been that they’ve never taken part in the idiocy that is humanity. They’ve cut the population and themselves no slack, constantly pushing out and sharpening within articulate reasoning and sharp observations. Not in a “we’re the voice of morality” way, either. Like village elders, lessons are taught through narratives and stories, never through barked commandments. When “God’s Love” speaks of “striking at mental apparitions like a drunk on a vacant street… tell me where is the love in a careless creation?,” it’s a broad, deep question of life examination rather than a slogan being yelled. And the fact that Bad Religion can repeat such a feat in every song on The Empire Strikes First is our blessing.
As one of the last bastions of intelligence in music, Bad Religion in 2004 have returned punk rock to its most melodically moving and academically ambitious. For those who’ve suggested that brains should be left out of creativity, here’s yet another slab of BR to prove you wrong. The Empire Strikes First will make you sing loud as your mind grows to its lyrics.