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Bad Religion

The Process of Belief (Epitaph)

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For all its fist pumping, red-star brandishing, onstage defecating and strident kvetching, punk rock has produced perhaps two protest songs from the past fifteen years that could actually get average listeners off their asses. And not from the obvious suspects: Fugazi has some buried in there, but you need a postmodern decoder ring to figure them out; and if International Noise Conspiracy isn't kidding, that only makes its agitprop vaudeville that much funnier. Nope, the prizes go to Joey Ramone's "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg" -- as noted by Nation columnist David Corn -- and Bad Religion's "Kyoto Now." Each focuses on a single outrage -- respectively, Reagan's honoring of a German S.S. cemetery and W.'s oil-sponsored pullout of the Kyoto protocol to fight global warming. Moreover, the songs rock with both mind and soul, something Bad Religion has never before done so well during its two-decade career.

While the the world's most articulate punk band has always been righteously pissed, singer and songwriter Greg Graffin has served as its analytical mind and guitarist/songwriter Brett Gurewitz its literary soul, their alternating compositions as clearly stamped as Lennon and McCartney's or Bob Mould and Grant Hart's. On The Process of Belief, Gurewitz returns from a three-album hiatus, and for the first time, the songs are collaborations between him and Graffin rather than separate properties.

This fusion of right brain and left brain yields Bad Religion's most rock-solid effort. "Materialist," a rationalist manifesto (a form honed to cold perfection on previous albums), boasts the depth to offer empathy even to the devout, the band's chief target. As Graffin spits in a folksy lilt that evokes an angry Irish pub singer, The process of belief is an elixir when you're weak/I must admit sometimes I indulge it on the sneak. "Sorrow" frames the tragic pettiness of human nature with compassion rather than B.R.'s customary nihilism, and the dirge is leavened with the kind of bursting sparkler of a solo that Gurewitz has made his signature. "You Don't Belong" is a salute to punks and outsiders, with an absolutely cutting comment on the state of rock and roll: Hey, you/Is there something worth belonging to?/Can it be found in a record store?/Well, it's not there anymore. And the band somehow manages to make three guitarists (including Gurewitz's replacement, Brian Baker) sound as necessary as the lyrics, resulting in a ripping, chugging, jangling slab of the melodic folk-punk blast Bad Religion developed in the late '80s. It powers the short, sharp thrashers as deftly as it graces more melodic numbers with a Technicolor wall of sound to match the band's trademark four-part harmonies.

There have been a few higher peaks (1990's "Flat Earth Society," '94's "Stranger Than Fiction") but never such a lofty plateau, from start to finish, as The Process of Belief. This reconstituted Southern California sextet has mastered not only protest songs but also underdog anthems, existential love songs and frightening social laments. While most veteran punk bands edge as perilously close to empty self-parody as their younger counterparts, Bad Religion is at its smart, passionate best.

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