Though Bad Religion's never discovered a sense of humor, and its lengthy discography is remarkably inconsistent, the band's 1981 debut, How Could Hell Be Any Worse?, remains one of the early L.A. punk scene's unsung classics. Years later in '88, when most everyone had forgotten about the band, Bad Religion rejuvenated its career with the blistering Suffer. In the '90s, the group's popularity exploded, while its creativity suffered; songwriter-guitarist Brett Gurewitz temporarily left, and the very unpunk Eddie Vedder appeared on one record.
But the band's latest, The Empire Strikes First, proves that for a group of balding punk fogies, Bad Religion has an amazing amount of spunk left. It's replete with outstanding melodies, powder-keg drumming, and jet-powered guitars that few younger punk outfits could duplicate. Of course, there are also some surprisingly dunderheaded lyrics: "Atheist Peace" comes with the generic bumper sticker of a lyric "No progress ever came from war." Progress didn't come from the American Revolution? The French Revolution? Even Kosovo? Better is "Let Them Eat War," which also sticks to simple themes, but is buoyed by propulsive rhythms from the band's dandy three-guitar assault. It's a pity about the rap interlude, though.