January 20, 2013

Album Review: Bad Religion's True North

Time has a funny way of making certain eras of music we discovered as teenagers show their true value once we hit the adult age milestone of 30. During the '90s, the biggest punk bands in the world who didn't entirely "sell out" to pop radio arguably came out of Southern California with Bad Religion, the Descendents and Rancid. All three have defied aging in 2013, integrity in tact, without changing much about their values or appearance despite the constant changing of the guard in the scene, where as their fellow elder image-conscious Golden Statesman Green Day and the Offspring's commercial success has set them up to become a cartoonish punch line in the genre's history. 16 albums into their career, Bad Religion are in an ultimate enviable position right now. The legendary Los Angeles hardcore lifers have already proven capable of inspiring legions of sound-a-likes and followers, they've many a classic in their back catalog as well as a couple of accidental crossover hit singles, and everyone from your older brother to his anarchist-in-the-making teenage son continue to view them as godlike figures responsible for getting them into punk. On True North, Bad Religion give the teenagers from yesterday and today a redux of the experience molded from the core that has allowed their fast-paced four-chord fire to burn over three decades long.

What we're already familiar with isn't something that often works to a band's advantage, but with smart pop-punk hooks finding new purpose inside the next gen's writing process, True North's value lies within just that: Bad Religion's signature three-part harmonies railing over Bret Guretwitz's speedy, bite-sized hardcore riffs, and their ability to keep you wide awake and listening over the course of 16 tightly focused tracks in just 35 minutes -- A fete for any band (nevermind a sextet of quinquagenarians) to accomplish this day in age. True North recharges Bad Religion circa their almost-accessible and heroic selves, forcing you to look to frontman Greg Graffin's lyrics for a state of the union declaration as to where his punk values lie 30 years later rather than taking each track at hook's value. Even in maturity, however, these are songs that speak to any nihilist. Its title track and opener brings up more existential questions than answers ("I can't see the rationality / The world's not my responsibility / And happiness isn't there for me...,") where as "Dept. of False Hope" and Popular Consensus" double as his soundboard to rip into a dysfunctional government. It's not to say that even the Occupyist movements established to combat our leaders' waste is safe from Graffin's scrutiny of their intents either ("Citizens united / I was excited / When the kids are united they can never be divided / But that was yesterday / There's a brand new sham today...,") proving his watchdog wisdom isn't tailored just to the old school.

In an interview with SPIN about writing True North, Brett Gurewitz went on to say, "My experience in life is that your greatest successes come as side effects of trying for something else. And that's really what happened when Bad Religion became a mainstream crossover band. But it occurred to Greg and I that, rather than trying to recapture that, what we should be trying to recapture is the thing that led to that." You aren't getting music here you weren't aware that Bad Religion was capable of creating, but the punk vet's assured sense of identity is just the thing that causes a multi-generational following to get ill-conceived mohawks at 16 or never regret tatting the band's iconic slashed-cross logo on their body, even when it fades into their 40-year-old skin. Three decades-plus and 16 albums into their career, Bad Religion remain the dependable constant in the punk rock timeline. At its most complex, True North delivers food for thought to question our process of belief. At its most basic, the message sent is a simple, resounding one heard in the LP's finger-flipping first single: "The easiest thing to do / Is say fuck you!"

Bad Religion's True North will be released January 22, 2013 on Epitaph Records.

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