By: Dennis Cook
There's major head trauma in the national psyche. Many artists have struggled in the past few years to say something poignant or cathartic about the state of affairs in the United States (and in turn the effects the U.S. has on other countries). Some have taken an obvious, already-dated sledgehammer to G.W. Bush and his cronies like Bruce Springsteen's Magic and John Fogerty's Revival but by tying things to specifics they've lost the real power of protest music, which is the ability to inspire, anger and unify through song. Bad Religion has always possessed a knack for dethroning tyrants and ideologues but they've rarely been as sharp, effective and downright hooky as on their 15th release, New Maps Of Hell (Epitaph).
Few bands, especially punk ones, last more than 20 years but Bad Religion continues to find things to be gloriously pissed off about. If anything, songwriters Greg Graffin and Brett Gurewitz spit more bile now but with far greater aim. It doesn't hurt that this is one of the tightest bands in the land, still (largely) committed to perfecting 2-3 minute sonic blasts. What's been added is a huge gift for melodies and some of the most potent, inventive back-up vocals since Phil Spector's heyday. And don't forget about Graffin's nuanced, rocket blast hard singing, simply one of the best lead vocalists in any genre. Plus, there's still lots of big, pointy teeth but to call much of New Maps catchy would be a gross understatement.
In a recent conversation with Chuck Prophet this album came up and Prophet said, "Bad Religion has always been the perfect mixture of The Clash and Mott The Hoople." I couldn't put it better. There's something for the hardcore kids and straight-edgers but a Ramones or New York Dolls enthusiast can get just as much out of Bad Religion's yummy Molotov cocktail. If they'd chosen to push pop-punk marvels like "Honest Goodbye" or "Prodigal Son" (two standouts here) they could easily be competing with Green Day in the mainstream. As it is, they've kept their venom sacks full to bursting, only growing smarter and more articulate with the years. To wit, this bit from "Dearly Beloved":
Dearest in memoriam – set phasers to stun
And grab yourself a neighbor's skeleton to lean upon
Did you know him in life – one filled with regret
So soon we all forget we ever met
There remains a thoroughly anti-monoculture bent that swings at power mongers, both political and clerical, but a quiet spirituality or perhaps wide-eyed humanism has crept into things over the years. Opener "52 Seconds" barrels out with the line, "I know I'm part of something greater than myself/Don't know the meaning of it but I hope that matters less." Bad Religion is kicking at the pricks that would have us live in "the land of the destitute and free." But, they remind us that we do not rage alone, and there's more than power in numbers – there's hope and purpose that matches or beats anything politics or religion can muster.
New Maps Of Hell makes my almost-40 self feel like The Clash's Give 'em Enough Rope once made my 15-year-old self feel – that music CAN change the world for the better. It stokes a fire that needs tending if the Tree of Liberty is to be watered with the blood of true patriots. When Thomas Jefferson warned us about the dangers of representative democracy he was thinking of patriots like Bad Religion on the battlements. Jefferson and many of the founding fathers knew how easily power corrupts, how quickly Presidents turn to Kings if left unchecked. We may not be at the stage where a bullet is the answer but there's still plenty to be done if we don't want to see that Tree wither and die. Bad Religion has given us new marching songs. Suit up and get out there!
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