We gave it an A
Rock & roll and political activism were once famous bedfellows. But boom times do strange things to a culture. Aside from turning the rock concert into a sexual war zone and lionizing a new breed of knuckleheads (see Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit, et al.), the main accomplishment of this year’s Woodstock was to prove a generation could marshal an impassioned stance against, um, overpriced rock concerts. Meanwhile, the Senate rejects a nuclear test ban supported by most of the rest of the world, and we can’t even get a decent cover of ”Eve of Destruction.”
It’s enough to make you give up on rock altogether, not to mention political activism. But then along come Rage Against the Machine, who haven’t given up on rock or political activism — and some may judge them fools on both counts (or compromised hypocrites: They did play Woodstock, but issued a postshow critique that ran in The New York Times). Yet with their third record, The Battle Of Los Angeles, Rage return to pop’s arena — to quote the year’s other rock savior, Trent Reznor — like the straight-up second coming.
Rage are committed to rock. Deep as their love is for hip-hop (and they deserve credit for creating the entire rap-metal genre), they employ no DJ, and their liner notes trumpet the fact that their music is ”made by guitar, bass, drums, and vocals.” Their Harvard-schooled guitarist, Tom Morello, has gone so far as to build an entire palette of sounds emulating turntable scratching. Combined with his passion for heavy metal thunder and Hendrix-style machine-gun funk, Morello’s new-school style truly earns the tag ”modern rock,” and it’s made him the ax hero of choice among a generation of discerning string benders.
Morello’s playing scales new heights on Los Angeles. In the past, Rage were fairly sluggish in the groove department, more stomp than swing. But this most ascetic of bands finally seems to have discovered its hips. Morello moves with more agility, his tightly wound rhythm work rivaling his stylized, F/X-driven leads for center stage, while bass/ drum engine Tim ”Y Tim K” Commerford and Brad Wilk inject more play and bounce into their Godzilla-on-the-good-foot roundabouts. Rage are also working with a broader sound palette: See the heavy, shimmering e-funk of ”Mic Check,” the Black Sabbath-in-Houses of the Holy dream mosh of ”Born of a Broken Man,” and the low-riding, War-time harmonica break on the single ”Guerrilla Radio.”
But singer Zack de la Rocha still puts the rage in Rage. Maybe it’s the current atmosphere of rock idiocy and IPO-fueled greed, but his diatribes feel more compelling, more indicting than ever. If rap is — per Public Enemy CEO Chuck D — the black community’s CNN, Rage are what the MacNeil-Lehrer Report could’ve been with a megawatt sound system and Noam Chomsky at the copy desk. ”Testify” observes how the people’s opiates produce consensus (”Mr. Anchor assure me/That Baghdad is burning/Your voice it is so soothing”); ”Guerrilla Radio” stares down the vacuum of the election year (”More for Gore or tha son of a drug lord/None of tha above, f — – it, cut tha cord”); and ”Voice of the Voiceless” again argues for the freedom of journalist and death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal.
For all their hard-rocking fury, there is a poignancy to de la Rocha’s tirades. They are the sound of an Everyman betrayed by a nation, a religion, a community, a culture — and tellingly, a father (”Born of a Broken Man”). Some may fault The Battle of Los Angeles for its relentlessness, and indeed, save the fuse-lighting moments when de la Rocha softly incants his calls to arms, the record is a 45-minute roar. But ballads or beauty are beside the point here. This is music made to agitate, not seduce, and at that it succeeds triumphantly.
The phenomenon of rap-metal is largely rock’s answer to rap’s vivid machismo. But where most acts just crib the materialism and misogynistic swagger of the gangstas, the mixed-race Rage find meaning in the righteous warrior stance of Public Enemy and newcomers like Black Star. At a time when movies like Fight Club gesticulate toward the emptiness men feel in our present-day culture, Rage Against the Machine make a case that there are still some things worth fighting for. A