It’s a sad reality that turbulent times feed art like little else. Whether it’s internally generated or a product of the outside world, art seems to thrive and feel more vibrant when it’s railing against the tyranny of the negative. Enter Album #13 from Bad Religion, the so good I didn’t realize how good it was at the time it came out The Empire Strikes First. With the horror of the Bush years as fodder, the band makes the most rock and roll album of their career, and it’s brutally good.
It’s also a tour de force for vocalist/songwriter Greg Graffin. After a short intro (also let’s quickly mention the fact this is a punk album with a lush intro and codas attached to songs) The Empire Strikes First bursts into your face with “Sinister Rouge,” “Social Suicide,” and “Atheist Peace” – all straight up classics, and all Graffin tunes. If Brett Gurewitz was the MVP for getting the band back on track with The Process of Belief, Graffin is the MVP for keeping them there. Lyrically and melodically this is maybe his finest hour, displaying a vulnerability no seen before on “To Another Abyss” which takes chances by being a slowed down, gut punch of a song.
None of which is to say Gurewitz falls flat. “Los Angeles is Burning” might be one of the happiest songs the band ever put out from a sonic perspective, so it’s made even more delicious when the lyrics attack the sensationalism of the media (it’s not actually about wildfires, although you can definitely make the argument there’s a correlation to the fast spread).
I haven’t listened to this album in years, and was shocked at how consistently great it played. If it’s been a while or if you’ve been sticking to the earlier material, you just might be surprised as how driving and fueled The Empire Strikes First is. Gonna be playing this one for the rest of the day.