For two decades, lead singer Greg Graffin and his troops have been soldiering on, watching waves of trends break off the Bad Religion bulwarks as they fortified a melodic hardcore formula. Sure, their music is fast, loud, and hummable; it is pop-punk, after all. But Bad Religion has always cast itself as an avatar of dark and bitter social cynicism that tends to view even punk itself through the same gloom-tinted lens as it does the rest of the scary world.
Graffin's obsession with the weighty themes of political history and cultural anthropology has been apparent since Bad Religion's 1982 debut, How Could Hell Be Any Worse?, a precocious classic that reeked of Spengler and Spinoza as much as it did zit cream and spit. Graffin, guitarist Brett Gurewitz and bassist Jay Bentley were only in high school when they formed the band, though they seemed to have advanced a few grades ahead of kiddie-punk's hormonal jocularity. Right from the beginning, Bad Religion had a serious sound, almost apocalyptically earnest. Personal concerns such as morality and the responsibility if the individual within society were juggled with the macrocosmic metaphysics of God and nature. It made "Clash City Rockers" sound about as deep the theme song to The Monkees.
Now nearing their forties, the members of Bad Religion have aged a bit more gracefully than many of their contemporaries -- not that the band completely avoided the cliched pitfalls of substance abuse that plagued fellow southern California punk legends like Social Distortion and TSOL. The Process of Belief marks Gurewitz's return after a seven-year hiatus spent detoxing, not to mention overseeing his wildly successful independent label, Epitaph. Bad Religion itself is also back on Epitaph after five albums on Atlantic that were produced by such pop/rock aristocrats as Ric Ocasek and Todd Rundgren -- a puzzling move that seemed to blunt the credibility of their message as much as it did their buzz-saw blitzkrieg edge.
In addition to Gurewitz, Bad Religion's all-star guitar roster on Process includes '80s punk luminaries Greg Hetson of Circle Jerks and Brian Baker of Minor Threat and Dag Nasty. Baker's distinctive riffing stands out on tracks like "Prove It" and "Evangeline"; few hardcore guitarists have ever invested such cadenced lyrical phrasing into a fistful of power chords. Too many abbreviated Whitesnake solos and slick studio textures, however, serve to deaden the visceral impact of their strafing distortion and napalm pop hooks.
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Graffin's vocals have always been the big guns of Bad Religion's arsenal. Like a bleeding-heart drill sergeant, he barks out salvos of righteous outrage and harmony-strewn vitriol. In the song "The Defense," he howls, "We are the prey/And culture is the predator." In "Kyoto Now!" he harangues against "disjointed politics founded on petrochemical plunder." Granted, such pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-soapbox spieling may seem shopworn, even quaintly antiquated, by 21st-century standards. After all, punk rock's original Public Enemy Number One, Ronald Reagan, poses about as much threat to liberty nowadays as Mr. Magoo. It might not help, either, that Bad Religion seems content to dress up its avowed progressivism in the same threadbare melodies and eroded tempos year after year. Then again, in an age of John Ashcrofts and the PATRIOT Act, maybe the message is as valid and urgent as ever.