In a world ruled increasingly by superstition and intolerance, Bad Religion's rousing wall-of-sound punk seems about as necessary now as ever before. It is the impassioned sound of reason, anthems of a bittersweet idealism and a guarded hope set to propulsive guitars and charging drumbeats. And while most groups with even half the artistic output have long ago morphed into stylistic self parody, Bad Religion is currently surging forward with a renewed creative intensity. Their fourteenth album, entitled New Maps of Hell, is both a nod to the band's defiant past and an undeniable step forward in the evolution of a genre they helped to define. While many of the new songs are as brutally fast and unflinchingly heartfelt as anything the band has done before, the record is also filled with unexpected sounds, inventive rhythms and lush pop choruses.
"I think we're reaching back to our roots as a garage band and doing some really aggressive music," guitarist and co-songwriter Brett Gurewitz says. "But we're also trying to look forward and write some really interesting new rock songs."
After some years away, Gurewitz has been back in the fold for the previous two records, Process of Belief and The Empire Strikes First, both discs widely accepted as a return to form for the veteran band. He is again accompanying his longtime friends, co songwriter and singer Greg Graffin and original bassist Jay Bentley. The (slightly) newer band members read like a punk rock all star team, with guitarist Greg Hetson of the legendary Circle Jerks and Brian Baker of hardcore pioneers Minor Threat. The latest addition being a startling young drum prodigy and sought after session drummer named Brooks Wackerman.
For this latest record, Bad Religion convened with renowned producer Joe Barresi at a downtown Hollywood recording studio just blocks from so many of the nightclubs and halls where the band first inspired legions of like minded young malcontents amidst the vibrant eighties Los Angeles punk scene. Back then, the band members had been young teen rebels from the dystopian suburbs of the nearby San Fernando Valley, leather clad intelligentsia lashing out at a pervasive culture of greed and conformity. And while the band might now look less like brash young upstarts and more like hip college professors (singer Graffin is, in fact, a college professor) - there's still a whole lot to rail against and the band is undeniably up to the task.
"I think at heart, Bad Religion has always been anti establishment and about open mindedness," Gurewitz says. "Since we we're kids, this country has vacillated between varying degrees of anti intellectualism, machismo and religiosity - maybe now more than ever. And we write with a secular humanist world view which really goes against all that."
This sentiment is echoed in his lyrics to the blistering state-of-the-art hardcore of Welcome to the New Dark Ages. As a frantic wall of guitars power a rousing sing along chorus, Graffin's surprisingly soulful voice calls out: 'Welcome to the new dark ages / I hope you're living right / these are the new dark ages / and the world might end tonight / So how do you sleep - there's nothing to keep. This is deep / because we're animals with golden rules who can't be moved by rational views.'
It is this world view which infuses so much of New Maps of Hell. But there is also a sense of inner turmoil absent from the band's previous efforts. Where before there had been a defiant questioning and call for change, there is now an underlying sense of lost idealism - an acknowledgement that all the angry protest songs in the world could not prevent the mess we're in. And as unsettling as this sentiment might be for the longstanding firebrands, it has undoubtedly inspired a vital and emotionally charged record.
"Living in this world can leave you with a pretty bleak outlook," Graffin says, at the recording studio. "But then we still have that same naive hope we had as angry idealistic teenagers, that human beings will hear this music and think, 'This isn't right and I'm gonna do something about it.' There's a song called Requiem for Dissent on this record which is actually one of the more uplifting songs - the idea behind it being to try and raise the dead rebel from his grave."
And while a stunning new record from one of the most influential bands in recent history may not be enough save this messed up world, it might very well inspire a few defiant souls into action. Watching the band rip through a live set in front of a few thousand exhilarated fans days after completing New Maps to Hell, the sheer power of Bad Religion's music is unquestionable. The kids are pressed against the barrier, many with eyes closed and fists raised, singing each lyric as if it means the world to them. The entire affair has an intensely inspirational and cathartic air, like some riotous punk rock baptism in the name of free thought and dissent.
"I think a lot of our fans are just angry nerds like us,"Gurewitz says afterwards. "And that's really who we write for. Being a humanist and an intellectual is about as rebellious as it gets these days."
"In the end we do this because we still care deeply about inspiring people," Graffin adds. "I know that may sound a little lofty, but the truth is when I was a teenager, music was only thing that gave me hope in this world."