Bad Religion reclaims punk throne

The Warped Tour, two years ago. I was way up front, plastered to the barriers, when NoFX took the stage. Fat Mike came on, green hair and all, and quipped, “This song is off our new record. If you don’t have it, well, it sounds just like all the others. At least it’s better than the new Bad Religion CD.”

And so it seemed that another punk rock institution had given in to the mediocrity of a major label. Lead guitarist Brett Gurewitz quit when the band signed to Atlantic, leaving front man Greg Graffin to carry the songwriting torch. When compared to the college-radio-friendly melodic punk of earlier albums, the results sounded like the equivalent of an adult contemporary station. Gone were the intelligent lyrics and edginess of Suffer and Against the Grain. And I’m not just being a pretentious music snob here; I am not making this stuff up. It’s objective fact: Atlantic dropped their contract because no one bothered to buy Bad Religion records anymore.

Which brings us to 2002. Back from complete commercial failure and an embarrassing stint opening for Blink-182, Bad Religion is once again the best punk band on the planet. The Process of Belief signals not only the return of Mr. Brett, but also a return to relevance. Just put on the lead track, “Supersonic,” which is pretty much par for the course: fast, loud and oh so catchy. “When I need to sate/ I just accelerate into oblivion” sets the tone for the album, as the first three tracks are about a minute each. Belief may be a quick listen, but punk should be about intensity and energy anyway.

These days, a band that hasn’t heard of “filler” or “the ballad” is guilty of blasphemy. But not everything is played at breakneck speed, with “Broken” using acoustic guitars to bracket its punchy chorus. It’s slower than the rest of the album, but no less infectious. Also notable is the anti-war anthem “Sorrow,” which starts off sounding a lot like the Police before settling into the standard punk gallop.

The hype surrounding Belief has been pretty crazy, hailed as the second coming of Bad Religion, as the savior of punk and all that. And expectations here are willingly met, but not exceeded. Track after track follows the same formula they coined 20 years ago: short guitar intro, fast drums and Graffin’s almost talk-singing, and vocal harmonizing over a hum-able chorus, all in three minutes or less. It’s not groundbreaking; it’s just classic.

And what Bad Religion album would be complete without a shot at American capitalism? Railing against “The Man” is totally cliche, but then again, this is the band that brought it to modern punk rock. So if you can’t appreciate “Kyoto Now!” for pearls like “It’s a matter of prescience but not the science fiction kind/ It’s all about ignorance, and greed, and miracles for the blind,” then appreciate it because it rocks.

For all those who stuck with the band and those who jumped ship, here’s a gift. Fourteen tracks of the seminal Bad Religion falling in love with their music all over again, and that in itself is worth the price of admission.

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