Have our punk-rock heroes given up on changing the world?
Among punk-rock activists calling for world change, Bad Religion have never been the most optimistic. Their music has its hopeful moments: times when the lyrics get especially articulate about not just problems but solutions at the same time that the guitars surge upward and the drums pummel forward. Those moments are enough to feel like the band is shaking the very foundations of people's thought processes, making them question their assumptions about the world, inspiring them to start a revolution. At the same time, no one would ever mistake Bad Religion for a band of dewy-eyed optimists.
This has always been true, during the band's 25 years of existence. But on their 14th album New Maps of Hell, their view of the world is especially dark. There's almost no light at the end of this tunnel. "Unrelenting night," Greg Graffin calls the current state of the world in the album's first single, "Dark Ages". The chorus begins, "Welcome to the new dark ages" and ends, "the world might end tonight." The way he sings it, and the way the band backs him up, makes this hysteria sound like foresight, like truth. Throughout the album the band acts as if the album title were descriptive, as if instead of a new album they've created a new map to the Hell they see the world as today. As if it's a given that we're living in Hell; what's missing is a map, a guide to point out the deepest pits and most dangerous fires.
Bad Religion is that guide and New Maps of Hell is the guidebook they've created, albeit one with fewer concrete answers than might be expected. The group's last album, 2004’s The Empire Strikes First, made crystal-clear who was causing the world's problems, pointing fingers upward, at the top of the power hierarchy. On this new album visions of hell-fire have lead them down more metaphorical and literary routes. Graffin and Gurewitz have always been notorious for integrating unwieldy language into punk rock, and this time is no exception. The song "Germs of Perfection" starts with these word-litanies: "Lacerate eviscerate and perforate and mutilate / We all fall down, all fall down / Deprecate repudiate ameliorate adjudicate / The wisdom found, wisdom found." Even when they're directly calling for listeners to act, they use vines of words, the antithesis of terse populist slogans like "Fight the power." The chorus to "Germs of Perfection" is the prime example: "Clip the wings of progress, turn the direction / Enrich the fallow soil with germs of perfection." That wordy approach is nothing new, but this time around the lyrics overall do seem particularly academic, or at least further removed from the language and scenarios of the world around us. They take the world's dark power struggles, cycles of war and societal devastation and frame them within scientific, mythological and biblical terms. They sing of Ezekiel, of Mars the God of War, of the Prodigal Son. And they sound especially depressed as they do so.
Of course, the first Bad Religion album, in 1982, was titled How Could Hell Be Any Worse?, so apocalyptic pessimism isn't new to them. Actually, little in the Bad Religion world is new, these days. Since guitarist/founder/co-songwriter Brett Gurewitz returned to the band in 2002 (for the especially strong The Process of Belief), Bad Religion has musically been sticking closely to the path they created on their classic late '80s/early '90s albums (Suffer through Generator). They maintain a high level of energy, with the drums mostly keeping the standard hardcore pace of a high-speed train. They write some amazing hooks, and only occasionally (“Honest Goodbye”, “Dearly Beloved”) let them take much of the spotlight. They sing pretty harmonies (very Californian) yet never let you forget that they could beat your ass in a heartbeat. And when they take a stylistic detour, it's subtle enough to almost go incognito.
Then again, there’s a heavy metal fence around much of New Maps of Hell that does sometimes feel new, or at least like revitalization of old habits. The sludginess that on the first few tracks seems like a bad mix eventually refines itself into something tough and shiny, distinctly metal-lic. Heavy guitars have always been part of the band’s heritage (and remember, guitarist Brian Baker wasn’t just in Minor Threat, but hard rockers Junkyard, too). But here it’s accentuated; there are longer, harder solos on “New Dark Ages”, “Requiem for Dissent” and “Prodigal Son” than seems standard. That style slided into the usual high-speed Bad Religion style well enough that the first time through I didn’t really notice it until the final track, “Fields of Mars”, a song that’s begging to be called “art-rock” (it’s the piano probably, as barely-there as it is). That’s the perfect time to notice, though, as it’s also the song that’s most overtly mythological in writing. It’s the song that makes clear the link between heavy metal and the gloom-and-doom talk. What’s more appropriate for an end-of-the-world album than a little bit of musical darkness thrown in with the California punk?
Do hard rockers usually sound this defeated, though? This time around Bad Religion’s cries for rebellion are mostly about the failure of rebellion. “Requiem for Dissent” is probably the strongest call for action, to not let dissent die, but it also feels like a funeral. The dominant tone is sadness. The album is populated with rebels giving up, deciding that their actions are futile. There's the “Lost Pilgrim”. There’s the “honest man losing religion,” who stands in front of his congregation and screams, “Dearly beloved… I can't relate to you!” And there’s the band itself; by singing these songs they suggest that they’re starting to wonder if it’s worth the effort. If the values they’ve been trying to instill in the younger, still-teachable generation is disappearing, getting completely absorbed by conventional wisdom and apathy. “I can see the edifice crumbling in foggy mist,” Graffin sings in “The Grand Delusion”.
But it’s not just the death of dissent they’re worried about; it’s death itself. Songs like “Before You Die” (as in “think before you die…eternity can’t ever change your mind”), “Grains of Wrath”, “Submission Complete” and “Scrutiny” reveal a deep-down fear that over 20 years of fighting will lead to nothing at the end of days: no victory which they can feel proud of at the moment of death, no changed world to leave behind. No New America, as one of their albums was titled. Perhaps New Maps of Hell is one extended reminder of that: a reminder to push past their doubts and keep rebelling, no matter how tough that is. As Graffin puts it earlier in the album, “Scare up some hope / You're gonna need it just to cope.”