New Maps of Hell (Epitaph)
by Tim Den
It’s now pretty much unanimous that Bad Religion have only been on the up and up since guitarist/backup vocalist Brett Gurewitz returned to the fold, so it should be no surprise that New Maps of Hell is another monolith of pop punk excellence the likes of which only such a legendary band can produce. I don’t know how else to put it. Cuz everyone knows what to expect by now – cerebral, humanist lyrics, jet engine drumming, thick power chords, and, of course, melodies and harmonies that completely consume your soul – yet somehow, the band always manage to come up with satisfying platters without deviating too much from the tried-and-true formula. Even the ones that recall the past a bit too much (“New Dark Ages,” “Grains of Wrath,” “Scrutiny,” “The Grand Delusion,” “Lost Pilgrim”) contain just enough miniscule reinvention to be refreshing. Be it a tremolo guitar, a winding lead, or some tasteful percussive accentuations, you can’t help but sing along at the top of your lungs.
But the real strength of New Maps of Hell lies in its bolder moves. Just when you think Bad Religion can’t put another spin on melancholic hymns set to fist-clenching fury, the masters give you “Before You Die,” “Prodigal Son,” and (first single) “Honest Goodbye.” These three tunes more than any other present songwriters Gurewitz and (vocalist) Greg Graffin expanding beyond their roots effortlessly, no doubt their 20+ years of working together providing much of the maturity and vision. Gurewitz has stated in interviews that New Maps of Hell contains attempts at writing good-yet-exploratory rock songs that serve both the punk and plain ol’ “solid songwriting” camps, and that statement is proven thoroughly with these three entries. The chord progressions might be familiar and the tempos slower, but by taking unexpected melodic turns at every chance and using the mid-paced feel to traverse broader waters of mood, phrasing, and tension-and-release, Bad Religion have just penned some of their most original material to date. In fact, the first time I heard “Honest Goodbye,” it was a complete revelation. It sounded like Bad Religion – whose members have produced and absorbed so much music in their lifetime – were finally drawing upon their entire existence. Here, the song said, are muscles, grace, and craft wrapped up in a deceivingly simple anthem. It’s the kind of song that embodies everything that’s perfect about songwriting SO MUCH that it pains my heart with its brilliance. I don’t think I’ll find a better structured song with such a monumental payoff for quite sometime.
So whether you come for the same ol’ beauty-and-speed or the progressive steps forward, New Maps of Hell has you covered. The world might be retrograding and the mass populace’s IQs might be dropping quicker than temperature of an Antarctic night, but at least one band remains as modern and relevant as ever.