The Battle of Los Angeles
Rating: 9 out of 10
THE NEW MACHINE AGE
Kicking and screaming, Rage Against the Machine drag their contradictions into the light. By RJ Smith
One of the great sicknesses of our time is the inability to distinguish between “contradiction” and “hypocrisy.” People who don’t live up to the letter of their words have become a cultural obsession -- blame Bill Clinton, who drove a wide-body cruiser between “words” and “deeds”, and the media mandarins who like nothing more than to point out the hypocrisy of activist hip-hop or Jesse Ventura or Kabbalah fanatics or anyone who zealously holds a set of beliefs. They fancy themselves the great levelers, and because they themselves stand for absolutely nothing, they think they rise above the rabble. (That’s them on the edge of the Woodstock mosh pit, looking at the bodies dripping mud, laughing.)
Still, it’s impossible not to consider the contradictions of Rage Against the Machine. They are not, for instance, Fugazi, paragons of punk principle who minimize their contradictions by limiting themselves. Rage dare you to spot the ironies: They will put themselves on the Woodstock auction block then rail against the promoters’ price-gouging in The New York Times. They champion pirate radio (singer Zack de la Rocha has supported Radio Clandestina, a revolution-minded L.A. station) while they court the media Godzilla (and rock the soundtrack to Godzilla).
But you’d be wrong to let the contradictions of this major-label, Top 40 band of revolutionaries turn you aside. The Battle of Los Angeles is a great record that perfectly articulates the rap-rock youth rally they themselves spearheaded. It’s also a much better record than anything Korn, Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock, or even Rage themselves have ever made.
“It’s the end of history,” screams de la Rocha on “Sleep Now in the Fire,” with the millennial frenzy of Pat Robertson on PCP. History is very much on his mind. For one thing, guitar bands like Rage are no longer the lead players in pop history -- more like the busted statues scattered around a Roman bath in a bootie video. Rage are ass-deep in denial, and God bless’em. Denial gets you through. Meanwhile, one listen to The Battle of Los Angels shows you that guitars have just begun to speak.
That’s if we make it past New Year’s Day. On “War Within a Breath,” de la Rocha yearns for the dawn’s early light, fantasizing a black flag or a red star rising over Los Angeles. Anarchy or Communism, heads we lose, tails they win -- the singer just wants to see the sky full of metal. “Everything can change, on New Year’s Day,” de la Rocha hisses, in an angry parody of that cute-li’l Latino voice the Offspring use and U2’s old rallying cry. And on “Mic Check,” he asks “Who got the power? / .. the pig who’s free to murder one... / Or survivors who make a move and murder one back?”
Yet Rage’s call to arms falls on the ears of an audience that’s overwhelmingly white and suburban. Their audience’s oppression is of an entirely different sort than that faced by campesinos and intifada fighters the lyrics celebrate, and if the rap-metal fans that make up a huge part of their support are thinking about armed rebellion, it’s probably the kind that happened at Columbine High rather than, say, in the jungles of Mexico. It’s what you call a complex dialectic.
While the band loves chaos in their politics, they dig control musically, and three years off between albums seems to have only essentialized their metal. Everything they did well before they improve on here; an irresistible tension is set up time and again between noise and rhythm. Bassist Tim Bob opens “Calm Like a Bomb” with some ill Christian McBride jazz moves, and everywhere he and drummer Brad Wilk drop hot coals before the Long March. Tom Morello showed us on the last album how a guitar can sound like turntable scratching, and this time out he makes like bagpipes, a penny whistle, and an automobile antitheft device. He’s taken a legacy of guitar playing that seeks to break free of the material world (Hendrix to My Bloody Valentine) and strapped it into the most material of metal grooves.
But it’s MC Zack de la Rocha who’s stepped up the most. His mic skills have always seemed suitable for agitprop, but they’ve improved markedly; his tag-team with KRS-One and the Last Emperor on Rawkus’ Lyricist Lounge Volume One, “C.I.A.(Criminals in Action),” was a revelation, first because he flows like he can’t when Morello’s wagging his brontosaurus tail, and because they guy who always seems to be snarling “that’s not funny!” suddenly seemed to be having fun. And he holds his righteous own beside Chuck D, Pharoahe Monch, the Roots’ Black Thought, and others on the recent posse benefit for death-row inmate/journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, "Mumia 911."
When they stated, Rage were linked to the disaffection of grunge, but while their labelmates and pals Pearl Jam have peaked commercially, Rage keep growing. Today they rise above the swamp of white rockers influenced by hip-hop -- I mean, it’s hard to imagine Fred Durst singing “Raza livin in La La / Is like Gaza on the dawn of Intifada.” Maybe their greatness shines brighter for the competition. At Woodstock they mostly just shut up and rocked, and that was enough to burnish their image as a band of principle. For a weekend, a group that craves blood and bonfires got both, and they managed to have their $12 pizza and eat it, too.
It’s just another contradiction. But with the economy humming along for most of the masses, here is a band making music about freeing Mumia, about designer jeans stitched by slaves, about no war-for-oil. Unmeasurable, their impact is also undeniable. They’ve become a great band that cuts through irony at the same time it piles up contradictions. It’s an achievement, one that will stand even if the biggest flames they ever get to fan are at a Woodstock bonfire.
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