"The Empire Strikes First"
"III: Ghost Tigers Rise"
"Palm Trees and Power Lines"
Hardcore was originally a punk subgenre, but now it has numerous subgenres of its own. There aren't as many ways to vary the style as there are bands on this year's Warped Tour, which boasts more than 30 acts. Still, a survey of just a few of this year's Warpees finds the music pulling in many directions.
More than two decades after Bad Religion issued its first warning, the band still sets compact political commentaries to breakneck rock. There's grandeur amid the thrash, however. The bicoastal sextet's 15th album, "The Empire Strikes First," begins with an overture, and the choruses of such songs as "Sinister Rouge" and "To Another Abyss" feature massed vocals that are more in the spirit of Prokofiev than Black Flag. Singer-lyricist Greg Graffin addresses his longstanding concerns, chastising leaders who would "Let Them Eat War" or justify human suffering as "God's Love." The title song adapts the analysis to chugging arena rock, but that's no bid for mass acceptance. Bad Religion thrives on being a guerrilla operation.
A rare example of a punk band with a standup bass, Tiger Army plays a curious goth-surf-rockabilly hybrid. The Anglo-American trio's third album, "III: Ghost Tigers Rise," features titles such as "Ghostfire" and "Rose of the Devil's Garden," yet forgoes the morose mid-tempo those songs' themes suggest. Instead, most of these 13 numbers proceed at a gallop, with singer-guitarist Nick 13 brandishing the occasional Dick Dale riff atop the jumpy beat. Tiger Army -- whose name appears on the album cover in transliterated Japanese, for no apparent reason -- is deeply interested in such qualities as flash and cool. Substance is secondary, at best, on the band's wild ride.
After some dismissed Audio Karate's 2001 debut as generic pop-punk, the California band deliberately scuffed up its style. On the Chicano foursome's second album, "Lady Melody," the choruses often retain pop-punk's appealing simplicity, but the verses and bridges are craggier and less predictable.
While such songs as "Ms. Foreign Friendly" arrive at melodic payoffs, they don't always take the direct route. Tempo changes and raucous asides keep tunes such as "Jesus Is Alive and Well (and Living in Mexico)" impressively off balance. One turn the band doesn't take is toward traditional Latin music.
"Start Static," Sugarcult's 2003 album, was punk that flirted conspicuously with power-pop. The Santa Barbara quartet's new "Palm Trees and Power Lines" is even more mainstream, with more keyboards, more acoustic guitars and more ballads. Perhaps the least punk thing about it, though, is the object of its rancor. Where singer-songwriter Tim Pagnotta once raged at society, now he's mostly peeved at women. The opening "She's the Blade" (which warns "and you're just paper") is characteristic: classic-rock misogyny boosted by a spry, sing-along chorus. It's more than a little retro, but as a tunesmith Pagnotta remains unimpeachable. If she's the blade, he's the hook.
-- Mark Jenkins
Appearing Wednesday at the Nissan Pavilion. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Bad Religion, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8130; to hear Tiger Army, press 8131; to hear Audio Karate, press 8132; to hear Sugarcult, press 8133. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)