Unlike many of its '80s Cali punk peers, Bad Religion aged like wine, not delivery pizza. While most bands of that era realized their potential within the first two albums and then began a slow, sometimes torturous slide into mediocrity, creative stagnation and beyond, Bad Religion started as a "good, not great" act, and not only endured but progressed. Part of the key is the two songwriters, Greg Graffin and Brett Gurewitz, partners since founding the band in 1980. In 1994, Gurewitz left Bad Religion to steward his label, Epitaph, through The Offspring's unexpected success. It would be seven years before Gurewitz returned for The Process of Belief -- which reversed a subtle downward trend -- reenergizing the band and prepping it for The Empire Strikes First, its latest, and probably its best album in more than a decade. A little raw, urgent and as hefty guitar-wise as anything Bad Religion's done, it's a triumphant album dedicated to prompting a regime change. "[This] is the best album I've ever played on," says guitarist Brian Baker (Minor Threat). "Thank God for Brett's return, because the dynamic between those two guys when they're working is what makes them really special."