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Pennywise has got to feel a little like Prince Charles at this point: Both have been waiting and waiting and waiting to assume their respective crowns. While the day-to-day doings of Queen Elizabeth don't give royalty watchers much to complain about, just about everyone who keeps up with punk rock is good and ready for played-out Bad Religion to abdicate the So-Cal punk/hardcore throne. Pennywise sure is ready to rule, too. Although it sticks steadfast to the style it established on its previous releases, the band's upped production values and tightened lyrical focus make Land of the Free? its most compelling platter yet.

Anyone who's caught Pennywise's live set -- which, after repeated stints on the Warped Tour, includes nearly every skate punk in North America -- will attest to the band's unyielding live sound, a sound Pennywise is finally able to capture in the studio. With a sound that takes a cue from the metallic tinge of post-hardcore, guitarist Fletcher Dragge's furious riffs blast out like hot shrapnel in down-and-dirty rockers ("Something Wrong With Me") and pulsate with a tenacious pop edge ("Fuck Authority"). Drummer Byron McMackin pounds out dense, complex fills so quickly it's easy to overlook their power. Amid the whirlwind, however, Pennywise still brings in enough melodies to make this record ridiculously catchy.

Singer Jim Lindberg provides a crisp, intellectual foil to his band's raging punk: He's not going to let punk's acceptance in the mainstream dull its activist edge. Whether he decries the impersonality of organized religion ("My God") or charges his listeners to take up their own brand of activism instead of idling away their lives ("It's Up to You"), it's pretty clear Pennywise isn't snuggling up to The Man this time around.

With such a powerful sound, Pennywise has finally surpassed its Bad Religion idols. There's everything a fan of So-Cal punk/hardcore could want: vitriol, melody, passion and smarts. In the wake of Bad Religion's last few feeble attempts at punk, rockers just might be ready to embrace Pennywise as the new kings of the Southern California sound.

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Matt Schild