The Process of Belief, Bad Religion’s 12th full-length release in a career that is now older than most of their fans, was supposed to be the album to heal all wounds. (Their recent foray into more mainstream territory with Atlantic Records resulted in much criticism.) In 2002, the band has reabsorbed estranged guitarist and songwriter Brett Gurewitz, whose absence resulted in records lacking in both musical depth and fan enthusiasm. Bad Religion has returned to Epitaph Records (the label owned by Gurewitz and which he initially created for the band), replacing drummer Bobby Schayer’s ailing shoulder with the mercenary sticks of Brooks Wackerman, who has moonlighted in the past with Suicidal Tendencies and the Vandals. Process is supercharged with Gurewitz’s solid production and enough old school Bad Religion hooks to begin healing years of perceived misdirection, but it’s not a big enough band-aid to cover all the cuts of time.
For over 20 years, Bad Religion has refined their distinctive sound, and Process does little to betray the band’s classic blend of harmonious punk melodies and acid-tongued politics. Hints of their previous work can be heard all over Process: the opening riff of “The Lie” tastes just like the opener to their classic “I Want to Conquer the World” while “Bored and Extremely Dangerous” recalls 1993’s “Skyscraper.” More notable, however, are songs that depart from old Bad Religion tricks, like the mid-tempo “Epiphany,” a track that explores personal blight rather than the band’s customary explorations of cultural malaise: “We arrive at this place of no return my sisters/Only to discover that our values ran us aground/On the shoal in the sea of what we could be.” And while the music lingers in their past accomplishments, snatches of lyrics are more politically relevant than ever. The title of “Kyoto Now!” is its own rallying cry, referring to President Bush’s withdrawal from the international global warming pact, while the album’s best track, “The Defense,” takes a bite at the currently uncriticizable U.S. Patriot Act (“My high speed connection’s monitored daily by the Pentagon”).
Bad Religion’s return to Epitaph seems to signify a desperate grasp at the levers of a time machine, as if the band is pining for 1992. The label is currently home to young upstarts like The Refused, who in 1998 released the devastatingly original The Shape of Punk to Come, a truly prophetic title for a record laced with incendiary politics, titillating drum programming and brutal vocals that are both lyrically and sonically bombastic. While labelmates look forward, Bad Religion has, in many ways, released The Shape of Punk Gone By. Fifteen years has transformed the punk forefathers’ groundbreaking jackhammer gallop beat and mind-blowing lyrics into a barely applicable sampling of what a musical powerhouse used to sound like. One might ask Bad Religion the same question it poses in Process‘s opening track: “How does it feel to be outstripped by cultural change?” To which they might reply: “When I need to sate/I just accelerate/Into oblivion.”