Out of all the Southern California hardcore punk bands of the early '80s, Bad Religion stayed around the longest, although frontman Greg Graffin has remained the group's sole constant member. For nearly four decades, they have retained their underground credibility without turning out a series of indistinguishable records that all sound the same. Instead, the band refined its attack, adding inflections of psychedelia, heavy metal, and hard rock along the way, as well as a considerable dose of melody. Between their 1982 debut, their first major-label record, 1993's Recipe for Hate, and 2019's politically charged Age of Unreason, Bad Religion stayed vital in the hardcore community by tightening their musical execution and keeping their lyrics complex and righteously angry.
Bad Religion formed in the northern suburbs of Los Angeles in 1980, comprising guitarist Brett Gurewitz, vocalist Greg Graffin, bassist Jay Bentley, and drummer Jay Ziskrout. Gurewitz established his own record company, Epitaph, to release the band's records. Between their self-titled EP and their first full-length record, Pete Finestone replaced Ziskrout as the group's drummer. How Could Hell Be Any Worse?, their debut album, was released in 1982 and gained them some attention on the national U.S. hardcore scene. After its release, the group's lineup changed, as bassist Paul Dedona and drummer Davy Goldman joined the group. This lineup produced 1983's Into the Unknown, an album that revealed the group's interest in progressive rock and featured extensive keyboard work; the LP and the band's new direction proved highly controversial among Bad Religion's core fans.
In the meantime, the band's lineup was undergoing some more shakeups. Gurewitz had to take 1984 off to recover from various substance abuse problems, leaving Graffin the band's only original member. In addition to Graffin, the 1984 incarnation of the band featured former Circle Jerks guitarist Greg Hetson, bassist Tim Gallegos, and returning drummer Pete Finestone. Bad Religion's next release, the harder, punkier Back to the Known EP, restored faith among the group's devoted fans. After its release, the group went on hiatus for three years.
When Bad Religion returned in 1987, the band featured Gurewitz, Graffin, Bentley, Hetson, and Finestone. They released Suffer the following year, a record that reestablished the group as prominent players in the U.S. underground punk/hardcore scene. They followed with No Control (1989) and Against the Grain (1990). By the time of their 1993 album, Recipe for Hate, alternative rock had achieved greater visibility in the rock mainstream; in addition, the band's following became one of the largest in American punk. These two factors contributed to Bad Religion signing a major-label contract with Atlantic Records.
Bad Religion released their second major-label album, The Gray Race, in early 1996, but it didn't achieve the same results as its predecessors. No Substance followed in 1998, and two years later the band returned with New America, which was produced by Todd Rundgren. Although it featured Bad Religion's best work in years, Atlantic dropped the band, and they returned to Epitaph. In the summer of 2001, Gurewitz rejoined the lineup after a six-year absence, and the group began work on The Process of Belief. The album appeared in February of the following year and was widely hailed for its recalibration of the Graffin/Gurewitz axis.
Bad Religion's next project was the remastering and issuing of their early catalog. The discs began appearing in April 2004 with the release of Generator and How Could Hell Be Any Worse? The former included relevant 7" material from the era, while Hell took the place of 80-85, which had previously accounted for the band's earliest output. Both were fully remastered, as were subsequent reissues of Suffer, No Control, and Against the Grain. Bad Religion then returned in June of that year with The Empire Strikes First, a typically acerbic LP that reflected the surge of anger and defiance in the punk and indie music communities toward the policies of the Bush administration.
The powerful New Maps of Hell, released in 2007, continued on the path of discontent and railed at what the band saw as rampant apathy in the face of global crisis. Coinciding with Bad Religion's 30th anniversary in 2009, the bandmembers announced they would be going into the studio to record their 15th studio album. Titled The Dissent of Man, the album was released the following year on Epitaph. Rumors circulated that the group might be disbanding, but Graffin denied that there were any such plans, and in 2013, Bad Religion released True North, as well as a Christmas album, the aptly titled Christmas Songs. February 2016 saw the release of 30 Years Live, a vinyl-only album that featured a cross-section of songs from throughout Bad Religion's career, recorded during their 30th anniversary tour in 2010. In June 2018, the band released their first single in five years, the searing "The Kids Are Alt-Right," and the following year they issued a new studio album, Age of Unreason. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine