It’s easy to call Bad Religion “old” … because after listening to the initial samples of the New Maps of Hell, the song “Honest Goodbye” in particular, the gut reaction is “man … these dudes sound old.” But after repeated listens, you realize that “old” isn’t quite the word you’re looking far, but rather “ripe.” Ever since Brett rejoined the ranks (and the band returned to Epitaph), they’ve been searching for their perfect tone- in both songwriting and production- that would keep the band relevant in the current music landscape while not forgetting their rather dynamic and significant past. The New Maps of Hell then, is their conquering ode to the Bad Religion history that not only holds up well alongside some of their greats, but finally marks the pinnacle of their reformed and re-energized sound.
Their initial foray back into the “indies,” 2002’s The Process of Belief and 2004’s The Empire Strikes First, were relatively benign in their composition- providing instances of flair but rarely holding out for the duration. Thankfully, they never encroached on becoming caricatures of themselves and even their most uneventful of songs proved at least worthy of a few listens. Bad Religion seemed to merely chug along (as opposed to blazing through as they once did) on their most recent records, and it really isn’t until you listen to New Maps of Hell a few times that you realize it’s the natural progression from their previous two. It still has the expected up-tempo punk numbers, “Murder” and “Requiem for Dissent,” rip through the paces as “Modern Man” and “I Want to Conquer the World” once did, it’s just that their more mid-tempo, slow-building songs have finally found comfort beside them. “Honest Goodbye” may actually turn out to be one of the finest cuts from the album- a song reminiscent of Generator’s “The Answer” in potency. The band’s noted melodic tone is ever present as well- songs like “Dearly Beloved” and “Grains of Wrath” evoke some of the band’s finest moments, while maintaining a certain urgency to them.
It is however, no secret that once you’ve heard a few Bad Religion albums, you’ve really heard them all. New Maps of Hell is certainly no musical messiah of the future- it really is the same Bad Religion album, topically and musically, since 2002, just much better. The one true throwaway track of the release is the opener “52 Seconds.” It really should be renamed “a waste of 52 seconds” as the track does nothing to further the band or the album. If the band were ever in danger of self-parody, this song would be it. But as soon as the machine gun percussions of “Heroes & Martyrs” kick in, it’s pretty sweet sailing from then on.
New Maps of Hell won’t change your mind about Bad Religion whatever your current view on the band is. While it may not be the band’s finest moment, it is easily the best album they’ve done since they left Sony, and it is clear that Bad Religion remains the shining beacon amongst the sea of noise that has become the cross-pollination of the major label world and the independent one. (Epitaph)