In the early 1980s, Bad Religion churned out an album's worth of Southern California punk every year, but around 1994, the band settled into a pattern of releasing a new CD every two years.
Like swallows returning to Capistrano, they're right on time with their 12th album.
The Empire Strikes First arrives Tuesday, branded with a man praying in front of an American flag, which is exactly the iconography you'd associate with a band known for songs such as American Jesus and 21st Century (Digital Boy). Unfortunately the disc doesn't live up to the gold standard the band set early in their career and flirted with recently.
When co-founder Brett Gurewitz returned after a six-year absence in 2001, you could tell he revitalized the group because the 2002 release The Process of Belief packed the fiery roar that had gone absent. Beyond a few stabs at the United States' religious pomposity and imperialistic leanings and a cute poke at the absurdity of Los Angeles, The Empire Strikes First is cruise control on a straight, flat highway. It starts strong and swerves a little along the way, but arrives exactly where you expect.
It starts off so promising. A slow, ominous instrumental builds to a threatening crescendo before the band crashes through with Sinister Rouge, a blistering, pounding yelp of a song, complete with trademark backup vocals fleshing out singer Greg Graffin's indignations.
There's a war out there, and this is a fine 112-second opening shot.
Los Angeles is Burning is intriguing if for no other reason than it's a subject rarely addressed in less than four minutes, and while envisioning the City of Angels succumbing to forest fires, Mr. Graffin gets in a good pot shot - "I cannot believe the media Mecca - they're only trying to peddle reality. Catch it on prime-time, story at nine. The whole world is going insane."
Even Let Them Eat War, the bands' succinct analysis of who fights our wars, is stitched together the way you'd expect from a band that quotes both Thomas Wolfe and George Orwell.
But shortly after the mid-tempo title track announces "the greatest show on earth" and invites a sing-along "Don't wanna live! Don't wanna give! Don't wanna be! E-M-P-I-R-E," there's not much left to hold the attention. Addressing the months leading up the war in Iraq, Mr. Graffin effortlessly blends self-righteous anger with deprecating self awareness, and he's clearly a brilliant lyricist. "Well, we spit and we cursed and our bleeding hearts burst. But even ten million souls marching in February couldn't stop the worst."
This is one of those records that will satisfy fans, but will win few converts.
THE CD: Bad Religion, The Empire Strikes First
THE VERDICT: HH out of HHHHH
Reach Patrick Verel at (706) 823-3332 or firstname.lastname@example.org.