Tufts Daily: April 14, 2000
Rage Against the Machine
In 1992, a little Seattle band named Nirvana turned the mainstream music world upside down with their landmark album Nevermind. They singlehandedly wiped out hair metal from the charts and opened the doors for a new style of music that was musically innovative and earned critical acclaim, collectively labeled alternative, that effectively took over the mainstream media. Among the bands that thrived in Nirvana's wake were Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Jane's Addiction, Tool, and a fiery Los Angeles foursome named Rage Against the Machine.
Formed in 1991, their debut was a performance in "somebody's living room in Orange County." Dreadlocked frontman Zack de la Rocha tackles controversial political and social issues in his lyrics, rapping and screaming a leftist viewpoint nonstop. Bassist Tim Commerford (known as Timmy C. on the album) adds elements of jazz, punk, and metal in his ferocious finger picking bass style. Drummer Brad Wilk gives the band a hard-hitting punk rock drum section with some uptempo hip hop style beats. Guitar wizard Tom Morello gives the group much of its distinctive flavor, conjuring riffs and sounds on his instrument that had never been heard before by previous guitarists. Given their reputation as a tremendous live act on the LA club scene and Lollapalooza, Rage quickly got a record deal and released their debut album in late 1992.
Although Rage weren't the first band to fuse rock and hip hop (credit Run DMC and Aerosmith, Public Enemy and Anthrax, and Onyx and Biohazard), they were the first to make an entire sound out of the hybrid rather than just a crossover song. By fusing the leftist politics of Mao, Marx, and Che Guevara with the sounds of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, the Sex Pistols, House of Pain, and Public Enemy, Rage developed an entirely new lyrical and musical style. In doing so, they opened the door for a new wave of bands that grew up listening to rock and hip hop that would take Rage's formula to the top of the charts by the end of the decade. The album cover says it all as a political statement and a hint of Rage's relentless musical onslaught: the famous 1963 Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk immolating himself in protest of the US-backed Diem Regime in South Vietnam. By taking unpopular and often controversial stances and actions on issues, and actively taking part in political activism and encouraging their fans to do likewise, Rage are clearly meant to be taken as serious as a heart attack.
Kicking off the album is "Bombtrack," with its throat-grabbing opening riff followed by very hard-rocking melodies, which is enough to suck anybody in to listen to the rest of the record. The next song, "Killing in the Name," finishes with the defiant slogan of the decade "F*** you I won't do what you tell me!" and has become the band's signature song, usually performed as the last song at their concerts. "Take the Power Back" tackles Eurocentric learning perspectives in schools, backed by a catchy punk-driven riff. "Settle for Nothing" sees the band revisiting their Orange County hardcore roots. "Bullet in the Head" is one of the band's best songs. It was so good in its original demo form that it was not altered for the album. Commerford and Wilk play a creepy but upbeat rhythm section to balance Morello's punk rock meets gangster rap guitar work while de la Rocha spews lyrical venom on the biases of the American media during the Gulf War.
"Know Your Enemy" is another favorite on the album, and features a jaw-dropping guitar solo that would send most 80's hair metal guitarists scurrying for cover. The next song "Wake Up" addresses the less than legitimate activities of the FBI in silencing political dissidents such as the Black Panthers in the 60's and 70's. The song was also featured in the closing scene of "The Matrix." "Fistful of Steel" is the most hip hop-oriented song on the album, with a bizarre turntable-esque opening riff and solo section and de la Rocha's fierce Chuck D-style rapping. "Township Rebellion" has Commerford playing a bizarre bass line that sounds uncannily like a large annoying fly buzzing around that won't go away, as Wilk fiercely pounds away on the skins and de la Rocha screams his head off about apartheid in South Africa. Ending the album is the stunning six-minute track "Freedom" which takes on the disturbing case of Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist, whose supporters believe was wrongly convicted for murdering two FBI agents. While the specifics of the case are too broad to mention here, they are covered in great detail in the Robert Redford documentary "Incident at Oglala." Musically and lyrically, the song fuses Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Public Enemy, Southern California hardcore, and the Clash into a spectacular frenzy of aggression and noise that makes Limp Bizkit's "Break Stuff" sound like a nursery rhyme.
Rage Against the Machine's self-titled debut album is a landmark record of the 90's, and is almost always mentioned in "Best of the Decade" polls by fans and critics. While Korn, Limp Bizkit, and Kid Rock might be selling more records right now because of their following among trendies and teenyboppers due to the success of the MTV popularity contest Total Request Live, none of those artists would have achieved that kind of success if Rage Against the Machine had not come along first with this album. Accept no substitutes, this band and this album are the real deal.
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