I owe George W. Bush my deepest gratitude for one thing and one thing only: his atrocious foreign and domestic policies have made punk rock good again. The Empire Strikes First, the second Bad Religion album to reunite the songwriting team of Epitaph Records head honcho Brett Gurewitz and singer Greg Graffin, is the band’s bold and satisfying re-entry into the punk rock fray. Thematically, the album has three obsessions: truth, war, and God. Given that the Bush administration is obsessed with the same things, the album seems topical and current without ever making direct jabs at Bush or the so-called “war on terror.” In “Let Them Eat War,” Graffin offers: “The people who benefit most are breaking bread with their benevolent host/Who never stole from the rich to give to the poor/All he ever gave to them was a war/And a foreign enemy to deplore.” No one will doubt the current application of this critique, but it will remain timelessly relevant as long as power continues to manifest as warring nations (which, coincidentally, is one of the few things that Bad Religion seems to have any faith in).
Empire slaloms across Bad Religion’s old formulas, taking new departures into instrumental intros, daring harmonies, and even a guest MC. The first half of the record slams as quickly as its title might suggest, with back-to-back anthems that don’t slow down until track nine. Songs like “All There Is” (the chorus of which offers some fine rhythmic flourishes) emphasize the value of recently acquired drummer Brooks Wackerman, who punctuates his presence with beats and drum fills previously unknown to the band. The record, however, is not without its faults—“To Another Abyss” provides a methodical and well-planned musical backdrop for some of Bad Religion’s worst lyrics ever (“You know that it’s a bitch/When you learn to scratch that itch”), and “Boot Stamping On A Human Face” dies swiftly after the departure of the opening guitar line. And while some risks taken early in the record succeed remarkably well, others fall flat (most notably the hook of the title track, which includes the painfully spelled out word “E-M-P-I-R-E”).
Bad Religion’s searing indictments and dead-on skepticism still lack a certain degree of passion that one would expect to accompany such words. Trading inflection and urgency for clarity and evidence, Empire skates its invectives just under the boiling point, without ever spilling over. Though this may be disappointing to some, anyone who has seen their live show would agree: it’s less about performance and more about extracting some truth. Bad Religion has managed to reside in the rare duality of legendary pioneering and modern relevance. Recent years have been hit and miss for the band, but The Empire Strikes First proves that the band is not merely a live-action relic, but a punk powerhouse that can still show the younger generations how it’s done and simultaneously pull the establishment’s pants down.