20 years of the weapon of sound above ground.
The two biggest differences between the issues plaguing 1999 and the world today in 2019 are the passing of time and advancement of technology. The more things change, the more they stay the same. But if there’s one thing that’s never changed in the last two decades, it’s how music can be such a powerful platform for inspiring new ideas and tangible actions. The first step in any kind of movement happening is awareness, as one simply cannot protest what one is ignorant of. And if there’s one band that most people think of when it comes to raising political awareness and driving ideas for change or resistance via their anarchistic music, its Rage Against The Machine. With their 2020 return now confirmed, bringing back all of the classics songs and their important messages to an older generation missing it and a newer generation that needs to hear it, these are exciting times for any Rage fan.
Few bands in rock can summon forth in their songs the burning feelings of a full-blown protest or a riot about to erupt, yet Zack de la Rocha, Tom Morello, Tim Commerford, and Brad Wilk do it with what seems like ease; like they ain’t even breaking a sweat when they whip crowds into a frenzy. Which is more than likely why their brand of groovy, funky, riff-driven rock has persisted so well for the last 27 years. Well, that, and the fact that this band just writes great, memorable songs that defined a generation of music and music listeners. They truly made a microphone and an amp sound like a very real threat. Their socialist political stances spoke truth to power about the U.S. government, and the injustices happening in various South American regions, such as the Zapatista movement, far away from the nightly news coverage. Rage unapologetically wrote whatever they want, and they spoke their minds; two character traits that are deftly important for any artist.
You’ll often see Rage’s 1992 LP listed in articles about the best albums of the ’90s or the best rock albums of all time. While I politely but sternly disagree with that sentiment, it’s not hard to see why that’s the case: it was their debut record. It was this fierce, fiery and funky first album that not only had something to say, but said that politically-minded “something” fucking loudly, and in doing so, helped pave the way for the nu-metal, funk-metal, and rap-rock acts that were coming up just on the horizon. Sometimes, if you’re lucky enough, you’ll also find 1996’s ‘Evil Empire‘ on the same lists – a solid album in its own regard. (I’ll throw hands against anyone who says that ‘People Of The Sun,’ isn’t a top-five Rage song. Because it is and more metalcore bands should cover it instead of ‘Bulls On Parade.’)
For many, those first two records get ranked highly because they simply came first. Or at least, they were the RATM records that the very people who rank them so high heard first. Yet I’ll martyr myself on the hill of ‘The Battle Of Los Angeles‘; a record that’s just as good and as consistent, if not better than its two predecessors, no matter the context one may have first heard it within. This was the culmination of the previous records, seeing the band sounding their best, and firing on all cylinders with very little filler, and a killer turn-of-the-century feeling of revolt. Few new songwriting ideas outside of ‘Maria,’ ‘Mic Check‘ and ‘Born Of A Broken Man‘ were attempted, as it was more a tighter refinement of their funk-blasting rap-rock sound. Yet those smaller hints of new dynamics and sounds, mixed in with the records undeniable sense of rebellion, charged screams, super kinetic rhythms, and energetic riffs make for Rage’s finest hour. ‘The Battle Of Los Angeles‘ has never been as important or relevant as right now.
Rage’s Brendan O’Brien produced, third LP can be best summed up by the title of its third song: it’s calm like a bomb, right up until it’s not and it suddenly explodes. It sees each of the four members pulling their weight: sometimes obviously (Tom’s ear-catching riffs and solos), and sometimes subtly (Tim’s busy bass work.) Kicking off with the volcanic ‘Testify,’ the tight rhythm section grooves from Brad and Tim perfectly underpin Tom’s hazy, swirling guitar noises as Zack’s yelling is presented as if he’s delivering it through a megaphone mid-demonstration. It’s all classic Rage, but written and performed in the strongest fashion, serving as a terrific starting point for what is their best album.
The rollicking revolutionary rock hit that was and still is ‘Guerrilla Radio‘ has spawned both good and bad covers over the years, yet the original still cannot be touched. (Which best summarizes Prophets Of Rage’s entire third-rate existence.) Speaking of, I’ve seen no covers stem from the moody, loop-heavy and easily sampled rebel-anthem, ‘Mic Check‘ who’s questioning lyrics were as instigating as anything else: “The pig who’s free to murder one Shucklak / Or survivors who make a move and murder one back?” More than that, the publicity stunt of RATM shutting down the New York stock exchange early for the now famous ‘Sleep Now In The Fire‘ music video is a major talking point around this record’s context. Yet it wasn’t just Rage talking the talk, but also them walking the walk as well. And that leading riff for ‘Sleep Now In The Fire‘ has gone down as one of their best ever since.
Side-A of ‘The Battle Of Los Angeles‘ is definitely why this record was so well received and why it’s so fondly remembered, as its singles are all culled from that half. Yet Side-B is just as igniting, just as strong. The one-two punch of ‘Born Of A Broken Man‘ and ‘Born As Ghosts‘ is a real highlight. The former’s eeriness, created by a somber guitar intro and Zack’s grim spoken-word verses morph into one of the more “produced” songs Rage ever cut, yet it still came down hard with some seriously angular riffs and earth-shaking grooves during the refrains. Whereas the latter kept it simple and more straight-forward with one of the catchiest, most instantly gratifying Rage bangers found in their deep-cut list.
‘Maria‘ is a letter of strength towards the blood-spilling spirit of resistance behind all struggling against oppression around the world, with what is one of the most chilling choruses the band had ever tracked. The circular, droning guitar leads on ‘Voice of the Voiceless‘ shift between Zack’s primal verses and the band’s surging rock, creating this familiar yet ominous sense of being that’s hard to shake. The chunky beats and funky bass lines of ‘New Millenium Homes‘ see Rage cutting loose, with one of Tom’s weirdest-sounding guitar solos and over-dubs. With a gnarly, morse-code-sounding guitar intro and wailing, pitch-shifting sounds that drift like distant police sirens, ‘Ashes In The Fall‘ is one of the darkest, heaviest boiling-pot tracks on the whole record; it builds with biting unrest until it can no longer be contained. Then closer, ‘War Within A Breath‘ carries the ethos of this whole record on its shoulders: our voice is the most powerful tool that we have as a people. What we choose to talk about, and what we choose to stay silent to speaks volumes. It’s a hard-hitting finale with “wah” bass playing that fights hard with a determined message: “everything can change on a New Year’s day“; it really is “land or death.”
Will RATM’s 2020 performances inspire new movements and create huge riots at Coachella? Probably not. Are the band somewhat hypocritical for playing such expensive, heavily-criticized festivals such as that? Potentially, but as they say: there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism. One needs money to fight money these days, and taking your message directly to an audience with a big demographic of rich yuppies is half the battle. Even so, what I believe these upcoming shows will do is inspire passion and maybe even genuine activism. Right after raising awareness, having the passion to see something through is the second step for any movement to progress. So let’s hope Rage bring it.