Among fans, curiosity abounds about Rage Against the Machine’s new covers album Renegades, but the real buzz has been about who should replace the band’s recently departed frontman Zack de la Rocha. Based on the evidence of this Rick Rubin produced disc — probably their last with de la Rocha — the answer might be… nobody. Okay, so the world’s preeminent rap rock fusionaires aren’t likely to soldier on as an instrumental power trio, but they could. The group’s relatively unheralded musicians (guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford, and drummer Brad Wilk) have developed into such a nimble and cohesive unit that they’d sound pretty exciting even without someone spewing rapid fire invective over their grooves.
Rarely has that skill been more in evidence than on these remakes of other people’s tunes. A remarkably diverse, if not exactly surprising, mix of heavy rock, hip hop, and protest music, the sources range from rap pioneers EPMD and Eric B. and Rakim (”I’m Housin”’ and ”Microphone Fiend”) to punk precursors the Stooges and the MC5 (”Down on the Street” and ”Kick Out the Jams”) and politically minded wordsmiths Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen (”Maggie’s Farm” and ”The Ghost of Tom Joad”).
Rage plays some songs straight, but just as often they rewrite chords and tweak structures, pumping up the chilled out funk of ”Microphone Fiend” and reimagining the rock stomp of the Stones’ ”Street Fighting Man” as a dark, rhythmic drone. Only twice do they stumble: on a labored cover of Africa Bambaataa’s ”Renegades of Funk,” which works thematically (”We’re on this musical mission/ To help the others listen/ And groove from land to land/ Singing electronic jams”) but doesn’t quite pull off the ”electronic jams” part, and a bare bones take on Devo’s ”Beautiful World,” which is so subtle it barely registers amid all the other hubbub. But even if this disc does nothing but introduce a new generation to the joys of Bob Dylan and Minor Threat, it’d still be a raging success.