Bad Religion 

The Empire Strikes First (Epitaph)

Veteran melodic hardcore band Bad Religion's The Empire Strikes First is the latest in a line of recent pop-punk albums centered around an attack on the politics of George W. Bush's America. Along the lines of NOFX's The War on Errorism, the politics are blatant and upfront. Unlike that album and many other recent politically charged efforts, though, Bad Religion is smart enough to make sure that the music doesn't take a back seat to the polemics.

Structured somewhat like a concept album, Empire begins with a quiet overture that leads into the first song. "Sinister Rouge" opens with a blast of guitar and drums surrounded by a choir of harmonized voices, adding a symphonic grandeur to the band's pure punk attack. What follows for the rest of the album's fourteen tracks is an alternating cadence between quick, hard-fast-rules hardcore tunes ("All There Is") and slower, more plaintive songs that come surprisingly close to balladry ("Boot Stamping on a Human Face Forever").

The mix between speeds and styles gives the album a good pace, making it more than just a collection of tracks, but two songs stand out as being far superior to the rest. The first single, "Los Angeles Is Burning," is a midtempo number that pulls together all of Bad Religion's best tricks -- beautiful harmonies, a catchy bridge and cutting guitars -- and fits all of the pieces together perfectly. The other standout is the title track, its anthemic chorus spelling out "E-M-P-I-R-E." It's so infectious even W. himself would have to sing along.

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