Most of the time when bands go to crap, they stay there. The spark that makes a great song is rare enough, but the concentration of those sparks into a period short enough in which to make an album is something that an artist is lucky to have once in a lifetime. If an artist can come up with one great album, they're memorable. If they can pull off two, they're legendary, and when you can pull together three or more you're in a league populated only by bands like the Beatles. However, the thing is that once bands start putting out crappy records, they only tend to go further in the crapper. Is there a great (and I mean really great) Clash record after London Calling? Did the Damned do anything noteworthy after Machine Gun Etiquette?
I wouldn't put Bad Religion in a league with the Beatles, but the fact that they cranked out consistently great albums for a solid six-year period from 1988 to 1994 makes them legendary at least in the annals of punk. However, when they began the inevitable downward slide on The Gray Race I didn't have a lot of hope for them. While the albums were still pretty good, each subsequent one features less and less truly great tracks until 2000's The New America pretty much only succeeded in confirming the band had lost the aforementioned spark.
So, as a longtime Bad Religion fan I had high hopes when it was announced that the band would return to Epitaph and Greg Graffin's sorely-missed songwriting partner Mr. Brett would re-join the band. Not long after I'd heard about the reunion, mp3s of the upcoming album were already circulating on the internet, and I was one of the first to download the record. Since that day nearly three months ago, my degree of fascination with this album, The Process of Belief has bordered on near-obsession. I thought that I had outgrown Bad Religion's stuffy vibe and pedantic lyrics, but with this return to form I realized that I hadn't outgrown anything, I'd only lost interest in a band trapped in a stifling rut.
As if to immediately justify all the hub-bub surrounding their rebirth, The Process of Belief kicks off with three of the most hardcore tracks the band has recorded since their salad days in the early LA Punk scene; "Supersonic," "Prove It," and "Can't Stop It" rival the tracks on the classic Suffer in both intensity and simplistic brilliance. "Supersonic" in particular incorporates all of the classic Bad Religion elements (great singing, prominent backing vocals, hardcore-influenced song structure, fast 4/4 beats) into a song that actually expands upon the band's sound with a unique, attention-getting bridge.
After the band gets the four minutes of raging hardcore out of their system they pick right up where they left off with groundbreaking (and slightly more mid-paced) albums like Against the Grain and Stranger Than Fiction. The fourth track, "Broken," may in fact be the best song the band has ever written. The band has experimented with the classic three-minute pop song before, but as they drop their multisyllabic topical onslaught for a more personal, even slightly romantic yarn it really completes the package (though it must be noted that the band still can't resist dropping latinate thesaurus specials like "mercurial" into the song).
"Broken" is the album's high-water mark, but The Process of Belief remains at flood-level for its entire duration. "Kyoto Now" features what is probably my all-time favourite bad religion chorus and will have you screaming along on the second listen, and the potential breakthrough hit "Sorrow" melds typically spot-on BR politics with a much slower, more sombre beat to great affect. "You Don't Belong" is a head-scratcher, though, a look back on the heyday of LA punk and hardcore that seems, to me at least, to be unnecessarily exclusionary. I'm not sure how much sarcasm is present in the lines "Hey you, is there something worth belong to? / And can it be found in a record store? / Well it's not there anymore" rub me the wrong way, especially coming from the head of one of, if not the most successful indie label(s) in the world.
All in all, though, The Process of Belief is a release that is at least on par with anything the band has done before. While odd little Graffinisms such as the awkward chorus to "Materialism" can occasionally induce a chuckle, if you liked the band's older work it isn't anything you can't overlook. Diehard and newbies alike will flip over this release, so stop wasting time and go find this thing, it's definitely worth the trouble.
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