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"You might not think there's any wisdom in a fucked-up punk rock song," sings Greg Graffin in "Kyoto Now!" summarizing Bad Religion's ethos in one fell swoop. Classic punk songs like Black Flag's "TV Party" and The Misfits' "Hybrid Moments" are fun and riotous but offer little substance. Bad Religion developed a lasting appeal by filling that void, becoming one of the most commercially successful punk bands of all time while packaging questions about politics, religion, and human rights into short, fast, and angry songs.
The formula works. Bad Religion has been going strong for over three decades, releasing 16 full-length albums, even with the seven-year absence of guitarist/co-writer Brett Gurewitz.
The band is outwardly rebellious, attracting listeners with its name and signature "crossbuster" logo, which juxtaposes a black cross with a red prohibition sign. Bassist Jay Bentley once described it as a great way to "piss off our parents." Bad Religion always has been good at defying authority figures — many of the band's songs take issue with blindly following orders — and challenging established ideas.
Part of Bad Religion's continued appeal is the positivity belied by song titles like "The Positive Aspect of Negative Thinking." For example, The Process of Belief's "Sorrow" longs for a messiah to come and put an end to war with an uplifting chorus worthy of a church choir.
Like most bands that have been around long enough to release 16 albums, Bad Religion's records aren't all works of art — mid-career lulls followed Gurewitz's departure and a stint with Atlantic Records. It's too soon to say just where it fits among their top albums, but their latest effort, True North, is some of the band's best work to date.
Bad Religion's third album, 1988's Suffer, often finds its way atop fans' lists of favorites. NOFX's frontman Fat Mike has described it as "the album that changed everything," not least because the 26-minute beast was the biggest seller for Gurewitz's Epitaph Records, launching a prosperous partnership for band and label alike. Suffer also ushered in a new era of pop punk, paving the way for the speedy, aggressive, and politically driven bands.
From the rough, driving guitar riff of opening track "You Are (the Government)," Bad Religion is bent on exposing the ills of society and refuses to let go. The album's 15 songs each clock in at less than two minutes long, delivering their messages and giving the listener no time to breathe. But Suffer requires a few listens to fully understand its nuances. The dueling guitars and vocal harmonies immediately stand out, but Graffin's poetry becomes evident with each repeated listen.
In the ferocious "Do What You Want," which began a Graffin tradition of long-winded lyrics, he says that he'll believe in God when one plus one is five. He describes himself as a "misanthropic anthropoid," which leaves most fans scratching their heads, but the message of encouraging listeners to believe what they want is not lost.
Bad Religion struck gold again with Suffer's follow-up, No Control. This album rivals Suffer in the punk canon by proving even faster and more aggressive than its predecessor. Songs like "Big Bang," "Sometimes I Feel Like," and "I Want Something More" go by in a blur.
Graffin proclaims that he wants to conquer the world to "give all the idiots a brand new religion," but megalomania seems like the last thing on his mind. However aggressive, his new world order once more hinges on a desire to put an end to poverty, uncleanliness, and toil. "Henchmen" is full of warnings to a corrupt government and desires to make the world a better place. No Control also displays an increased musical variety, with the fast songs counterbalanced by the depression-themed, slower-paced "Sanity."
Bad Religion continued its fury with 1990's Against the Grain, their final album before the group slowed down and experimented on 1992's Generator. Against the Grain finds Bad Religion taking on global issues and personal strife, including Gurewitz's struggles with addiction. "Anesthesia" chronicles an 11-year-old drug addition with comparisons to a woman. "Anna" isn't a lost lover, it's Gurewitz being "driven to distraction" as he is tempted by another hit.
Tensions between Graffin and Gurewitz came to a head during the recording of 1994's Stranger than Fiction. Gurewitz left the band shortly before the album was released. On tour, Graffin often changed the lyrics of the title track to take jabs at Gurewitz and his crack use.
Fiction also was Bad Religion's major label debut, arousing the ire of fans who accused the group of selling out to Atlantic Records. Things take a bleak turn in Fiction, which picks up thematically where No Control left off. Lines like "If I thought I'd make a difference, I'd kill myself today" are a bleak reminder of a common Bad Religion theme, that the world won't stop without you.
The songs on Stranger than Fiction are slower than those of Bad Religion's early days, but they display a sense of urgency that Generator often lacked. The title track takes a clever and catchy look at the madness of some of America's greatest authors. The travails of Hemingway and Kerouac are compared to those of the homeless and impoverished. Life isn't as interesting as fiction because it's full of cheap shots and weak characters, making it "the crummiest book" they've ever read.
Gurewitz left the band on poor terms and spent part of his seven-year hiatus in rehab. In the meantime, Bad Religion released three mediocre records and eventually left Atlantic. The band's return to Epitaph was paired with Gurewitz rejoining the band for The Process of Belief.
Belief, Bad Religion's 12th album, took a back-to-basics approach, harking back to the fast and furious punk heard on albums like Suffer and No Control. "Prove It" refuses to blindly accept theology, "Broken" takes a bleak look at teenage hardship, but the band offers a reaffirming resolution in "You Don't Belong." "Materialist" and "The Defense" continue the band's commentary on technology and consumerism, serving as indirect sequels to "21st Century (Digital Boy)" over a decade later.
With Graffin and Gurewitz back together, The Process of Belief was the beginning of a renaissance that continues into 2013. The sound is more polished, but after 16 albums, the aggressive, driving messages remain.