As the legend of Bad Religion's much-maligned 1983 prog/synthpop album Into the Unknown has it, the band made the drastic departure because they didn't think the band would last anyway. That seems insane to think, but it would've seemed totally understandable in 1983. Most of the first-wave American hardcore bands lasted only a few years and broke up after one or two albums; this was a self-sufficient scene built by people in their late teens and early 20s, and there was no interest in this kind of music outside of the DIY punk underground at the time. It wasn't built to last at all, and why would Bad Religion be any different?

Well, if you're reading this article in 2022, you probably know that Bad Religion did in fact prove to be very, very different. Their 1988 comeback album Suffer helped pioneer a form of melodic hardcore that directly led to the punk explosion of the '90s, and as Bad Religion watched the scene they helped build take over the world, they practically invented the idea of longevity in punk -- not even the pioneering, long-running Ramones could compete with their endurance.

In many ways, the version of Bad Religion that exists today is the one that began on Suffer -- that's the album that cemented the sound Bad Religion would explore and tamper with on basically all of their subsequent albums -- and that's what makes their 1982 debut LP, How Could Hell Be Any Worse?, which turns 40 today, so fascinating. Before Bad Religion helped revolutionize melodic hardcore, before they made a prog/synthpop album, they carved a space out for themselves within the first wave of American hardcore, and they made an album that stood tall next to just about all of their peers. Like Black Flag (SST), Minor Threat (Dischord), Dead Kennedys (Alternative Tentacles), and The Meatmen (Touch & Go), Bad Religion had their own record label (Epitaph Records), which -- combined with self-producing How Could Hell Be Any Worse? -- made them not just architects of a new style of punk but also of DIY. Like Bad Religion themselves, Epitaph went on to become a powerhouse -- it's released multi-platinum records and it's still home to many of the most important bands in punk and hardcore today -- and none of it would have happened without How Could Hell Be Any Worse?.

On this album, Bad Religion's music was largely cut from the same cloth as other West Coast hardcore pioneers, closer to bands like the Germs, Adolescents, Descendents, Social Distortion, early Black Flag, and the Circle Jerks (whose Greg Hetson went on to play in Bad Religion for nearly 30 years) than to the sound Bad Religion are best known for today, but listening back to it now, you can hear the seeds for their now-classic sound being sewn. The production has the primitive sound that most early '80s hardcore did, the riffs maintained the simplicity of early punk, and Greg Graffin was much more of a shouter than a singer at that point, but he could still carry a tune more so than many of his peers. You'd probably never get the sense from listening to How Could Hell Be Any Worse? without context that Bad Religion would go on to become one of the biggest and most important punk bands in the world, but knowing it, you can hear how this was a band that was starting to boil over with potential. Traces of their soon-to-be-trademark sound exist, and How Could Hell Be Any Worse? remains such a classic 40 years later because the thrill of hearing Bad Religion in this unpolished state never wanes.

Still, even if Bad Religion had broken up after their second album, HCHBAW? would sound timeless and classic today regardless. It's up there with any of the truly great LPs of the original hardcore era, with 11 tracks that clock in at under 30 minutes, each of them offering up their own onslaught of short, fast, loud, and direct hardcore, without an ounce of fat or a single lull. The production and approach clearly make HCHBAW? a product of its time, but the songs have never once gone out of style. Any time you put this album on, no matter what's trendy at the moment, it feels like a shot to the heart. And while countless punk bands throughout the years have been criticized for juvenile lyrical content, Bad Religion is a band who were making incisive political statements on just about every song from day one. Throughout How Could Hell Be Any Worse?, Bad Religion were talking about greed, war, corruption, capitalism, and religion-based hatred, and they were doing it in a way that still sounds smart and effective today. It's not an album of empty sloganeering or clichés or outdated ideas; How Could Hell Be Any Worse? was an album that lent a voice to the voiceless, one that helped spread ideas throughout the 1982 punk underground that are now part of leftist mainstream cultur. When people talk about how so much of today's protest language came from punk, they're talking about music like How Could Hell Be Any Worse?.


HCHBAW? turning 40 isn't the only major anniversary that Bad Religion are celebrating this week. On Saturday (1/22), The Process of Belief turns 20, and that album marked another major turning point in the band's career.

Just as the melodic punk sound that Bad Religion helped pioneer was starting to spill over into the mainstream, Bad Religion left guitarist Brett Gurewitz's Epitaph Records in 1993 to sign with Atlantic, who re-released Recipe for Hate that same year and helped Bad Religion break through onto rock radio with its singles "Struck A Nerve" and "American Jesus." Punk fully exploded the following year with Green Day's major label debut Dookie and The Offspring's Epitaph-released Smash, and just after it did, Bad Religion officially issued their major label debut, Stranger Than Fiction, which was co-produced by Andy Wallace (who, among other things, mixed Nevermind), and which housed some of their biggest singles: the title track, "Infected," and a new version of "21st Century (Digital Boy)" (which originally appeared on 1990's Against the Grain). Gurewitz left the band after the recording sessions to focus on Epitaph, Bad Religion replaced him with Brian Baker (formerly of Minor Threat and Dag Nasty), and then they linked up with producer Ric Ocasek of The Cars (who'd also produced Bad Brains' Rock for Light and was fresh off producing Weezer's hit Blue Album) for their second Atlantic album, 1996's The Gray Race, which kept the band's mainstream momentum going. (The Gray Race and Stranger Than Fiction also got boosts for having songs in Crazy Taxi.)

Bad Religion haven't had many real lulls in their career, but what came next is generally seen as a lower point: 1998's No Substance and 2000's Todd Rundgren-produced The New America, two albums that were met with lukewarm reactions and that even the band themselves rarely perform songs from. The New America ended up being the band's last for Atlantic, which might've meant the end of the road for some bands, but it was the best thing that could have happened to Bad Religion. They officially reunited with Brett Gurewitz (giving the band a triple guitar attack: Brett, Brian Baker, and Greg Hetson), re-signed to Epitaph, took back over their own production duties, and recruited former Suicidal Tendencies (and current Avenged Sevenfold) drummer Brooks Wackerman to jumpstart the band's sound. Like when Judas Priest brought in Scott Travis on the career-rejuvenating Painkiller, The Process of Belief made it clear that Wackerman was one of the most beastly drummers Bad Religion ever had, and his contributions left an immediate impact on the music.

It was the perfect storm with all of these positive changes happening at once, and I might be projecting a bit here, but I think the state of punk might've had an impact on this album too, just like the 1994 explosion did on Stranger Than Fiction. 2001 brought the release of the first ever number one charting punk album (Take Off Your Pants and Jacket by blink-182, who Bad Religion had supported on tour in 2000), and by 2002, all eyes were on the punk scene, and it wasn't just the major label bands -- independent labels were benefitting from all the attention too. If Bad Religion were gonna take advantage of this moment, they'd have to release one of the best albums of their career, one that could excite their longtime fans while attracting an entire new generation of punk listeners. And that's exactly what they did.

As a fresh-faced punk fan myself in 2002, The Process of Belief was my introduction to Bad Religion, and 20 years later, I still consider it one of the best examples of my lifetime of a veteran artist capturing the attention of a generation who weren't even born when their first album came out. By obsessively going down the punk rabbithole of who influenced all the bands on the radio in the '90s and 2000s by reading bands' liner notes, or discovering stuff on compilations, or checking out classic songs they covered, I eventually found my way to the originators of American punk and hardcore, and as amazing as all of that stuff is, most of it felt like history. But Bad Religion weren't artifacts of a past era. With The Process of Belief, they'd written an album that felt as urgent and current as all the bands in 2002 that grew up listening to classic Bad Religion records. And even after following the path backwards to breakthrough smashes like Recipe for Hate, to scene-shifting classics like Suffer, to the hardcore realness of How Could Hell Be Any Worse?, I still think The Process of Belief holds up as one of Bad Religion's best records.

Kicking off with the under-two-minute ripper "Supersonic," The Process of Belief made it clear right off the bat that Bad Religion were back. The song's got everything you want from post-Suffer Bad Religion: a rhythm section that moves at a mile a minute, guitar melodies upon vocal melodies upon more vocal melodies, soaring harmonies and "ahhh-ahhh-ahhh"s, and the strong-minded politics that Bad Religion had since day one. It's a hell of a track, and it's followed up by two more similarly-paced ragers, kicking the album off with a bang and a bang and a bang. More bottled-up lightning comes in the form of pit-starters like "Materialist," "Evangeline," "The Lie," and one of Bad Religion's best-ever blends of melody, speed, and purpose, "Destined for Nothing," but The Process of Belief isn't just ripper after ripper. In fact, one of the reasons it succeeds is because of how much Bad Religion manage to change things up, all while remaining within the context of their trademark sound.

Throughout Process, Bad Religion balance out the short, fast, and loud songs stuff like "Broken," whose verses jangle with breezy acoustic guitars that sound more like R.E.M. than punk or hardcore, until the song explodes into the kind of chorus that only Bad Religion can provide. "Kyoto Now!," a prescient song about climate change, is another quick one one, but the melodies and harmonies are so sugar-sweet that you almost don't realize how fast-paced it is. "Sorrow," which went on to become one of the band's biggest songs, incorporates a reggae intro before turning into a punk song that's so steeped in melancholy, it's almost too emotionally heavy to even mosh to. And then there's "Epiphany," one of Bad Religion's best-ever deep cuts. Operating at a mid-tempo pace, it kicks off with an all-time great melodic punk bassline (move over, "Longview"), and it keeps getting better from there. It goes through all kinds of dynamic shifts as it builds to its towering chorus, before taking off into some of the best melodic lead guitar that Bad Religion ever laid to tape.

Bad Religion have done multiple events that focus on specific decades or centuries of their career, and the reason they can still keep doing that all these years later is The Process of Belief. It's the album that stopped Bad Religion from fading away and turned them into the most enduring punk band of the last 40 years. Process wasn’t a brief comeback -- if anything, Bad Religion had an even greater sense of urgency on its followup, 2004's The Empire Strikes First -- and it remains a crucial turning point in Bad Religion’s career, with some of the most powerful songs they’ve ever released.


'How Could Hell Be Any Worse?' and more Bad Religion vinyl available here.

More From Brooklyn Vegan