LIVE: Bad Religion / Gnarwolves @ O2 Forum Kentish Town

By Leo Troy

The term ‘heritage act’ has a lot of connotations — one being ‘old,’ another being ‘important yet no longer relevant.’ LA punk legends Bad Religion have been around for a while, so in theory the term could apply to them, but judging by the unpredictable demographic inside Kentish Town’s Forum, they’re currently more relevant than ever.

All manner of punk t-shirts occupy the crowd, from makeshift TSOL or Negative FX merch to NOFX/Descendants knock-offs, H&M Ramones and Nirvana T’s and the occasional Milk Teeth or Basement extra large tie-dye. A middle aged dude in a denim vest covered in NYC hardcore patches guides his two wide-eyed identical twin sons to settle on the balcony. Interchangeable couples intersect with sullen faced loners on phones, who amble between boozed-up groups of twenty-somethings just out of the office.

Bad Religion have earned this multi-generational crowd due to two very rare traits: consistency and omnipresence. Since their first UK show in 1989, they keep coming back with exactly the same erudite anti-establishment attitude, and through the years they’ve never really changed.

But kicking off the night are Brighton’s melodic punk trio Gnarwolves. With relentless pace and a raw approach to melody, they thunder through a quintessentially English reflection of the headliners, with enough sarcastic optimism and deliberate weirdness to capture the attention of even the most cynical punk.

Opener ‘Straightjacket’ would be a classic if it was released on Fat Wreck in the ’90s, while the band’s undisputed best song ‘Bottle To Bottle’ elicits sparse singalongs from those in the know. Frontman Thom Weeks fills mid-song silence with expert banter about airline pork chops fashioned from mealworms, and it feels like a Stewart Lee bit. Bassist Charlie Piper shrieks like a banshee and drummer Max Weeks hurtles into ‘Boneyard’ with the athletic resilience of a professional marathon runner.

Closing powerfully, the casuals here might be inclined to see this as a passing of the baton. But as the support wander off, their slapdash hand-painted banner drops to reveal Bad Religion’s iconic CrossBuster logo, and a wave of excitement ripples through the room. The drunk twenty-somethings take skew-whiff selfies as proof of attendance, while the sullen-faced loners weave to the centre of the room in trembling mosh pit anticipation. The rest of the room realises they’re about to experience something immortal.

Legendary guitarist/Epitaph founder Brett Gurewitz enters first, looking remarkably unaffected by the previous decade, followed by frontman Greg Graffin, who skips onto stage with two extended middle fingers and launches into ‘American Jesus’ like he’s been frozen in a block of ice since the last show. A career-wide set follows, covering everything from 1982’s ‘We’re Only Gonna Die’ to 2013’s ‘Fuck You’ with a reliable sonic consistency that never once sacrifices energy for musicianship. They retain the band’s signature aloof sense of melody throughout.

There’s also something new at play: every one of Graffin’s Gurewitz-penned political lyrics is enunciated more clearly than usual. It’s as if in the shadow of Trump lines like “sometimes truth is stranger than fiction” and “they hide behind their lies that they’re helping everyone” have a new lease of life.

This same re-energisation is echoed in drummer Jamie Miller’s mechanical stamina, while bassist Jay Bentley acts as second frontman, still beaming like it’s his first show, and the faithful crowd reaction is a welcome surprise. Specific highlights include mid-paced anthem ’21st Century Digital Boy’, which evokes the loudest singalong of the night, and ‘Punk Rock Song’ which encapsulates everything that has given the band such longevity. The closing encore of ‘The Handshake’, ‘Infected’ and ‘Fuck Armageddon… This Is Hell’ whips the pits into peak madness and then the band suddenly vanishes into thin air.

Fire exits fill with the same families and couples and loners as before, but this time it’s quieter. Ironically, a Bad Religion show is a borderline religious experience. Attendees bear witness to something familiar and impossible to forget, leaving with refreshed political and personal tools to live by. The decades have given them a similar reputation to bands like Slayer or AC/DC — a comforting and exhilarating experience, that garners both retrospective acclaim and imprints itself on the present with an ever-shifting sense of socio-political relevance. Maybe the definition of ‘heritage act’ needs a rethink?