At this very moment, hundreds of bands in cities, towns and rural areas are studiously imitating Bad Religion. The group has survived for nearly a quarter-century, and for most of that span, it's rarely been seen as trendy. Nonetheless, the blend of sonic rudiments, melodic brawniness and social savvy -- honed to a killing edge by guitarist Brett Gurewitz, vocalist Greg Graffin and their fellows -- continues to inspire the punk nation, and The Empire Strikes First should only fuel the fire.
The Epitaph label, which was founded by Gurewitz, has made it easy to trace the outfit's development, issuing remastered, value-priced editions of five early Bad Religion platters: a greatly enhanced version of 1982's debut, How Could Hell Be Any Worse?, 1988's Suffer, 1989's No Control, 1990's Against the Grain and 1992's Generator. Despite numerous personnel changes from recording to recording, the CDs are consistent without feeling redundant, and they avoid the sort of production polish that can make even the most resolute acts seem like sellouts. Empire, too, sticks to the basics, aiming a barrage of guitars and the machine-gun drumming of Brooks Wackerman at injustice and violence. Tracks such as "Atheist Peace," "Let Them Eat War" and the title cut are anthemic in the best sense -- smart, passionate and unrelenting. The lyrics are frequently dour, but the rousing harmonies that shoot through "Live Again (The Fall of Man)" hardly hint at surrender.
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Unfortunately, most of the combos aping their music aren't nearly as convincing as Gurewitz and company. Guess that's Bad Religion's cross to bear.