33 years, 15 albums and countless tours. Punk rock legends Bad Religion released True North, their 16th studio album this week. Music listeners, rejoice! This is arguably their best album since ‘Stranger Than Fiction.’ Impossible you say? Using a little bit of context and analyzing, let me explain to you why this is the case.
While bands like the Sex Pistols, Ramones and even Black Flag seem to receive the lion’s share of accolades as being “the founders of punk”, Bad Religion deserves to be mentioned among these hallowed names. Not only are they just as great, with a healthy catalog that stands the test of time, but more so than any of these other bands they are the true progenitors of modern punk rock. The way Bad Religion married break-neck rhythms to catchy melodies and soaring vocals was revelatory. Throw in the socially conscious lyrical themes and you have a winning combination. It has influenced everyone from NOFX, Offspring, and Green Day to more modern punk bands like Rise Against and Against Me! While some bands are contended to leave their mark and fade away or burn out, this band continues to push themselves to stay relevant.
There was a time not too long ago it seemed you could judge the quality of a Bad Religion album by which political party was in office. This was a band born in the Reagan years and put out some of their most critically acclaimed work during the Bush years. Close to the same time Clinton took office in the 90s the band signed to Atlantic and lost founding guitarist and Epitaph Records head honcho Brett Gurewitz. While The Gray Race has some fantastic moments, even the band members admitted their final two albums for the label felt more like contractual obligations.
Then in 2001 Bush took office. The September 11 attacks happened and we were in wars in at least two countries across the world. Plus, Gurewitz returned to the fold. The band entered a renaissance period, releasing socio-politically charged bursts of frustration and outcry in the form of ‘The Process of Belief,’ ‘The Empire Strikes First’ and ‘New Maps of Hell.’ Each one saw the band far more savagely on-point with the cultural tides than they had been in many years. But then Obama took office. They took their energy in a different direction with ‘The Dissent of Man,’ stretching their wings, recording more mid-tempo almost country-esque songs like “Cyanide” and “Turn Your Back on Me.” While fans such as me enjoyed this different yet equally potent direction, many craved an album of bursts of anti-establishment anthems and cried foul.
For those fans and every other Bad Religion fan past and present, here is True North. 16 songs in 35 minutes. It is easily their most consistently churning, fast-tempo album since ‘Against The Grain.’ Yes, you read that right. Even if you stopped paying attention to this band in the mid 90s, it’s time to sit up and listen again.
Bad Religion’s “True North”
The album springs to life with the title track “True North,” urging listeners to ignore society’s moral compass and find their own direction. The song has that propulsive beat the band is known for and sets the pace for the rest of the record. “The Past Is Dead” simultaneously admonishes people for ignoring the past as well as urging people to look towards the future. One of the best tracks comes early on with “Robin Hood In Reverse” as singer Greg Graffin decries the absurdity of corporations being treated like people and includes one of the best lines heard in a while, “let’s try to get this right said the Plutocrat to Jesus Christ.” If you think about it, that’s pure gold. Almost in a continuation of the same thought, the next song is “Land of Endless Greed,” railing against the rampant materialism in our country.
When most of your messages are layered insight with deeper meaning, it sometimes helps to go the opposite direction and create something simple and to the point. The band finally has a song called “Fuck You.” It seems like the ultimate punk kiss-off, but the interesting thing is even in a simple sentiment like this there seems to be more at work. He calls it a “Pavlovian rude” and says it’s the easiest thing to do. This indicates that while it suffices to say this in some cases, it’s the automatic, thoughtless way out. Taking lead vocals for one of the first times in the band’s history is guitarist Brett Gurewitz, singing the fantastic “Dharma and the Bomb.” It gives the song a different flavor and adds a jolt of variety to the album, sounding more surf punk than your typical BR track.
Bad Religion’s “Fuck You”
At almost the halfway point the only song that goes over the three-minute mark, “Hello Cruel World,” arrives with the mid-tempo menace of “Infected.” It’s incredibly catchy and an excellent breather from the intensity of the rest of the album. Its non-stop action from this point on—“Vanity” is gone in only a minute, “Dept. of False Hope” and “Nothing to Dismay” flashes through your ears in a similar time but stand out as stone cold classic Bad Religion. It may not be one of the best on such a strong album, but “Popular Consensus” is an important message, especially for the youth listening, reminding them that just because a belief is held by many doesn’t make it right. In a world where increasing importance is placed on trending topics and posts with the most likes getting the lion’s share of attention, it’s vital that people know none of that matters; only your own conscience should hold sway over your decisions.
If there’s one complaint that could be leveled at this album it’s that well, it sounds like a Bad Religion album. Upon first hearing the stream of it on YouTube, it all flew by so quickly; it blurred together. Punk albums tend to have sameness to them if you’re not accustomed to the genre or haven’t trained your ears. So if you’ve never liked punk or Bad Religion before, chances are this will do nothing to change your mind. Besides, you don’t come to punk or Bad Religion looking for “new sounds” or strange genre twists. The surging punk sound is merely a canvas to express ideas to challenge social paradigms and the malaise of mind that doesn’t question the world around it. The words are what are meant to inspire while the beat just keeps your blood pumping.
Bad Religion’s “Changing Tide”
While it doesn’t seem they will be riding off into the sunset any time soon, after 33 years it’s a thought you have to entertain after each album. If the final album track, “Changing Tide,” were the last thing we heard from the band, it would be an appropriate farewell. Instead of ending the album in rage and indignation, the song radiates positivity, encouraging everyone to embrace change and new ideas with open arms. The hope in this song is inspiring, urging you to take all the frustration and rebellion over the course of the album and turn it into real change and activism that this world so sorely needs. The experience of True North for this long time fan is one of complete raised fist bliss, ecstatic to have heard one of the best Bad Religion albums in over a decade.
Written By Jarad Matula
OurVinyl | Senior Writer