It’s been awhile since we’ve heard from Bad Religion, the legendary punk band from southern California. The six-year gap between 2013’s True North (and the holiday album Christmas Songs from the same year) and their new album, Age of Unreason, is the longest break the band has taken in their four-decade career. But part of the reason the band is legendary is their socially and politically conscious songwriting, courtesy of singer Greg Graffin and founding guitarist Brett Gurewitz. With the Trump Administration in full swing, it’s no surprise to find that Bad Religion has an album’s worth of thoughts to share.
There isn’t much in the way of surprises on Age of Unreason. Bad Religion is playing the same fast, crunchy punk they always do, with Graffin’s angry but melodic, harmony-laden vocals coasting over the top. And those vocals are full of lyrics that skewer, howl, and rage about the state of the United States. But the band is very good at what they do, and Graffin’s erudite, clever takes on various issues makes the album significantly more entertaining than reading, say, your progressive-leaning aunt’s Twitter feed.
“End of History”, coming roughly halfway into the album, amounts to the record’s mission statement. A thudding bassline joins a pounding drumbeat, and the guitar chords enter simultaneously with Graffin. Compared to many of the band’s songs, this track feels relaxed and mid-tempo. Graffin opens with, “Halcyon days are not a thing / Nostalgia is an excuse for stupidity / I don’t believe in golden ages / Or Presidents who put kids in cages.” It’s catchy and confrontational, and rather than lean into the catchiness for the chorus, the band instead emphasize the song’s minor key darkness. Even the backing “ahh” harmonies are muted here as Graffin winds up to finish the chorus, singing, “Tell me where / Do you really want to be / At the end of history?” The greatest impact comes as the bridge finishes, where Graffin queries, “Now in the last second of our December / How do you want to be remembered / For generosity / Or a fucking monstrosity?”
That is a quintessential Bad Religion track, and Age of Unreason is full of them. Opener “Chaos From Within” has the galloping punk drums, top speed guitars, and layered vocal harmonies that are the band’s hallmarks. Graffin sings in general terms about looking outward for threats when the danger is existential and homegrown. The band follows this with the just as fast but catchier “My Sanity”. The first verse is a self-examination, but the second verse spins it a different way, with lines like, “But alternative facts / Snuck in like a thief” and “With confidence declare your state of perfect mental health.” And the third song on the album, “The Paranoid Style”, ticks off the hardcore box, with the guitars buzz-sawing, the drums galloping again, and Graffin spitting out his words with venom. “Hey! Let’s jump around / To the renegade sound / Of the paranoid style” is the refrain, followed by lyrics about communist plots, dispossessed teenagers, and conspiracies.
“Candidate” begins with a strummed acoustic guitar as Graffin fiercely sings, and for a second there’s a chance this will be an acoustic protest song. But no, the band comes in about 30 seconds later and rocks it out. Graffin’s got the premise of this one at the end of the first verse. “I salute an empty flag / Of ancient tribalism/ And trust me, nobody cares / For I am your candidate.” Musically this is one of the more interesting songs on the album. It’s got that acoustic intro, a relatively slow tempo, and a rocking guitar solo that counts as the song’s catchiest bit. “Big Black Dog” gets a lot of mileage from its hi-hat laden disco backbeat and the guitar riff that locks in really nicely with that beat. It’s the one song on the album that has a groove for actual dancing instead of slam-dancing, and it’s a welcome change of pace near the end of the record.
Conversely, “Old Regime” begins with a few seconds of guitar feedback on the same note as the guitar feedback that opens the band’s classic single “Infected”, which makes a bit discombobulating when the song launches into a full-speed punk workout. This is the kind of song Bad Religion can do in their sleep at this point, but there are a few nice little guitar solos here and “The new aristocracy just smells like the old regime” is a pretty good line. The similarly lackluster “Lose Your Head” has solid, chunky verses with an interesting vocal melody but kind of blows it in the mildly catchy chorus by just repeating, “Don’t lose your head / Don’t lose your head / Don’t lose your head / Before you lose your head.” But those songs are the exceptions on an otherwise strong record.
Anyone who’s spent any time with Bad Religion will know what they are getting into with Age of Unreason. It’s a good album that largely succeeds because the band are old pros. And because Graffin and Gurewitz have plenty of genuine anger and articulate that anger in interesting ways. In that way, it’s a spiritual successor to 2004’s The Empire Strikes First, which came on the heels of the George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq and was equally political. It’s good to know that Bad Religion is still out there standing up for science and rationality, especially at a time when those qualities feel like they’re actually under attack.