Back when they said you couldnít mix music and politics, hip-hop and rock, and sell millions without selling out, Rage did all three. The early 90s founders of the late 90s rap-metal takeover return to the spotlight to break more rules.
I enter the belly of the beast Ė no, not prison, not yet, just the halls of the Evil Record Company. But itís a nicer building, and they let ya listen to Rage. In fact, thatís what Iím in for, as an almost-finished version of the bandís third album, "The Battle of Los Angeles" (Epic), pastes me against the opposite wall of an executive office filled with kitsch toys and bootleg fan videos. Far from stifling Rageís unconventional music and even less conventional politics, the label has rolled a red carpet between me and those blasting speakers, and sometimes itís actually the company that has to drag cause-conscious but marketing-shy band members in front of the cameras and mics.
Still, itís hard to believe thereís even a third album to listen to Ė and Iím not talking about Rageís tendency to almost wait Ďtil the president changes to release a new disc. I mean, I still canít believe the Evil Record Company went for this band to begin with, before the money from platinum albums had a change to talk. The way Rageís resident guitar-mutator and former senatorial aide Tom Morello tells it, history was on their side: "Originally, we had no interest in even signing with a record company, Ďcuz I for one had had really horrible experiences with my previous band on a major label." [The band was Lock Up, and the horrible label was Geffen.] And we werenít even really thinking of going [with an] indie Ė and all of a sudden, in the wake of Nirvanaís success, not only were record companies eager to sign bands, but they were eager not to meddle with bands," Two unlikely hit albums of revolution rock later, with the trial Rage blazed leading to a current Top Ten pantheon of other punky metal-hoppers, everyone can be happy with their decision.
And the new album is true to both the legacy and the trail blazing. Itís definitely the Rage you knew, with stompiní anthems like "Testify" and "Guerilla Radio" to shake the stadiums and the system, rousing ballad/bombtracks like "Born of a Broken Man" to vary the pace and keep up the pressure, and guitar riots like "Ashes in the Fall" to bring it all crashing to a climax. Itís also the Rage of the new, as the band crosses two more lines, into extreme art-rock (the jarring brake-squeal aria of the migrant-worker manifesto "Maria") and almost church-like lament (The flute-sound guitar cry of the tribute to Mumia Abu-Jamal, "Voice of the Voiceless"), before colliding back into the super-energy "New Millennium Homes."
Prophet of Rage Zack de la Rocha is in rhythmically ambitious vocal mode, cutting loose freestyle or stuffing his treatises into challenging alarm-horn cadences. Heís not with us to listen along, being kept busy with side-missions like Spitfire, a fall spoken-word tour of political artist putting their mouth where their music is, but heís very much a presence as I talk to his bandmates.
"Always a big influence of mine, since we were little kids," says bass thumper Y.tim.K (the artist formally known as Timmy C., Tim Bob, and probably something else next time).
"Intelligent, thoughtful lyrics are very important to [Zack]Öwhich is a very good thing," drum pounder Brad Wilk laughs in agreement. For fans of the less-heard-from rhythm section, this most rhythmically-based of bands gives them a better spotlight on the new album than at any time since 1992ís self-titled debut, some highpoints being Wilkís almost tribunal tour de force in "Maria" and Timís hammering heartbeat bass in "Ashes."
Of course thereís the usual bitter feast of guitar shrapnel from evil genius Morello, "During the verses Iíll do my best to play the most annoying thing, like a buzzing fly or an alarm clock that doesnít have a snooze button [laughs] Ė Iím not afraid to punish the listener." Somehow it all fits together, which is the challenge of Rage Ė whether itís a diverse society or a cut-and-paste style, the bandís music is about holding together what could easily fly apart. "We always try to keep the music dynamic," agrees Morello, "and that very much adds to the flavor of the track and heightens the rush when the big riff finally does drop."
Rumors sometimes fly that holding the bandís personalities together is even harder work, but they seem like just that Ė rumors Ė to hear any of the members talk. These are three of the nicest guys youíd ever meet Ė apparently their adrenaline-rich line of work doesnít leave much, well, rage for their daily lives. "We compete at everything we do," Tim enthuses. "We all want to impress each other musically. I feel very lucky that Iím in this situation where there are people who are so damn smart; we are each little cogs in the wheel."
"No one stays married to any one thing," explains Wilk of the bandís studio democracy. "Everyone is really open to suggestion, and you wind up benefiting in the end. Itís really important to add different influences. It has to do with four different individuals becoming greater than the parts."
So if a different member isnít quitting every other week, what took the album so long? No, it wasnít that the label kept ordering them back to the studio until they came up with a single about Harvey Danger, but thatís cute. Actually, perfectionism plays a part Ė the minimum of restraint you see from Rage on stage comes after a maximum of discipline in the recording process (for instance, the almost-album I was brought in to hear was still having its title mulled a few weeks from release). But Timís got other good reasons too: "I feel that every time we go on the road or make a record, we are stepping up our skills. With the gap between the first and second record I got a little frustrated, but now Iíve just sat back and gone, ĎWait a minute, maybe this is what itís all about, taking that time to get betterí Itís all about building up that rage, all that angst and shit that it takes to come out on stage, especially for Zack Ė being the voice, heís gotta fucking be pissed, yíknow? Iím realizing now that we can take six, eight months off, not ever talk to each other, not ever play, get back together, rehearse three times, and go rock."
A former high-school athlete, Tim often describes this phenomenon in sports terms. Not being "a sex, drugs, and rockíníroll band," Rageís backstage area is "more like a locker room Ė like getting psyched for a game." And yet what are the biggest inspirations to the bassist for the most brain-pummeling band of the 90s? "The whole feminist movement" (an ex-girlfriend clued him to "all the marketing that revolves around womenís bodies; female infanticide; full-time moms not considered Ďworking women") and "the whole gay and lesbian movement" (the same friendís work in an AIDS group "opened my eyes to a whole Ďnother side of people").
Tim is glad the bandís being out there provides some back-up for kids trying to make a change today, and he hopes that the substance of Rageís politics makes the band stand out from a rap-rock pack thatís a lot more crowded now than when they started. Itíll all come down to the vote of the audience, and Rage are thankful for theirs.
"Our audience is like no other," Morello emphasizes. "On New Yearís Eve long ago, Perry Farrell had this idea that my band would dress up like Janeís Addiction and go on and play ĎPigís in Zení to their audience, to open their show Ė as a joke. So we did it, and we took the stage and Iíd never felt anything like it. It was like grabbin a live wire, the passion and the intensity that their fans had for that band. And I had played in a million bands, but there was nothing like that. And now I find myself in a band called Rage Against the Machine, and that happens every night."