Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Merge on the Networks, Slagging Nerve Gas

Alright, back to the music project, after a much needed break.  I liked the way the Blues Traveler Suite worked out, so this is another set of albums from one band.  Based on the title, and the pictures below, I'm sure you've figured out Rage Against the Machine is the topic band.  Im not that subtle.

Rage Against the Machine
Rage Against the Machine
1992, Epic
produced by Garth Richardson

Zach de la Rocha - vocals
Tom Morello - guitar
Tim Cummerford - bass
Brad Wilk - drums

  • Killing in the Name/ Darkness/ Clear the Lane
  • Bullet in the Head/ Settle for Nothing
  • Bombtrack
  • Freedom/ Take the Power Back
There has been so much said of this album, including "one of the best metal albums of all time" and "I wish they had stopped at this album".  Not only is the sound unique to its time (1992: hair metal was gearing down, grunge was gearing up), but it is the first successful and truest blending of rock and hip hop.  This album debuts a sound that is never shy, never apologizes, and is powerful in its simplicity.

There are only 4 members, and only 4 instruments used: a guitar from the Eddie Van Halen/ Jimi Hendrix schools of experimentation, a funky yet heavy drum, a hard rocking rhythmic bass, and a hip hop voice.  This fact not only makes what is heard incredible, but also lends an amount of honesty and integrity to a music scene full of overdubs, extra musicians, synthesizers, turntables and auto-tune.

The subject matter of Rage Against the Machine is not for everyone, and for as many people sucked into the music due to the revolutionary, humanist, and leftist themes, there are many turned off by the lyrics that make one think and challenge public perception, status quo, and conservative values.  These songs are not easy party music tracks, love songs, or Dio-esque epics about rainbow dragons and vikings.

De La Rocha raps and rants about police brutality and racism in America, big media, manifest destiny, urban slums, apartheid, and empowerment.

Thought provoking? Yes.  Fueled by anger?  Absolutely.  I think the best thing about these songs are the ability to inspire one to think outside of the proverbial box, challenge conviction, and formulate opinions based on experience, asking questions, and taking ones education in ones own hands.

Rage Against the Machine
Evil Empire
1996, Epic
produced by Brendan OBrien

  • Bombtrack/ Fuck the Police
  • Bulls On Parade/ Hadda be Playing on the Jukebox
  • People of the Sun/ Zapatas Blood/ Without a Face
  • Vietnow/ Clear the Lane/ Black Steel --> Zapatas Blood
The sophmore effort from Rage Against the Machine came four years later.  The sound doesn't change much on this album from track to track, and borrows heavily from it predecessor.  The subject matter of the individual tracks are far more interesting than the actual songs, where on the debut album the opposite feels true.

There are good moments.  Vietnow pulls a classic hip hop move and samples the riff from The Wanton Song by Led Zeppelin. Without a Face and Year of the Boomerang are able to change up an otherwise train of similar sounding metal tunes. Still, much on this album bears a listen.  Subject matter expands to cover the Zapatistas, the Zoot Suit Riots, The Black Panthers, the LA Riots, domestic violence, AIM and Leonard Peltier, the Christian Right and conservative radio pundits, class war, sexism, and colonialism.

For me, personally, I heard this album first and it has had a lasting impression.  Although I agree the other albums are better, this one still has moments that can not be outdone by earlier or later work.

Rage Against the Machine
Battle of Los Angeles
1999, Epic
produced by Brendan OBrien

singles -
  • Guerrilla Radio/ Without a Face
  • Sleep Now in the Fire/ Guerrilla Radio/ Bulls on Parade/ Freedom
  • Testify/ Guerrilla Radio/ Freedom
  • Calm Like a Bomb
The last album of original content, Battle of Los Angeles came out to critical acclaim when I was in high school.  I remember being surprised to hear sounds that I hadn't previously heard from Rage Against the Machine, specifically Tom Morello.

This album showed a more mature band and a deeper more polished writing style.  Instead of relying on incessant chanting of revolutionary and angry propaganda phrases, there is a focus on story telling, versus, even a hint of singing, which of course makes the chanting of phrases even more powerful.  In the end, I guess, reliance on old habits dies hard.

Unlike Evil Empire, where there are forgettable tracks indistinguishable sometimes from others, this album can be listened to from beginning to end, no skipping required.  Each track could have been a single, the deeper into the album one gets, the deeper and more adventurous the music gets.

Subject matter expands again to include Mumia Abu Jamal, 1984, privatization and outsourcing, the war on illegal immigration, and Christian missionaries.

While looking up some things for these posts I ran across online postings in music forums.  Everytime I read anything from online forums there a few things I always see.

1: Someone has to make it very clear how much he dislikes whatever is being discussed, usually in a way that makes him seem uneducated, closeminded, and unaware of being uneducated and closeminded.

2: No one is able to properly defend and debate said hater in a coherent, educated manner which ends in both parties arguing about each others' homosexuality.

3: the anti-rage sentiment stems from a very few similar statements.  I base this on reading such things more than once, in more than one place.

The first is that the band whines about leftist ideologies and needs to grow up, shut up and just play music.  This seems to be a knee-jerk reaction that anyone would make after their culture has been questioned, and the comfort of their world has been threatened.  Frankly, that particular phrase irks me more than anything else.

There has always been dissent and struggle in music, especially rock and roll.  If Elvis, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, Nirvana had all shut up and played the music that was expected, there would never be any innovation, or change, ever, and we'd all be still listening to good ole country tunes, turn of the century folk music, and classical baroque.

Many bands and musicians that are most revered by our society have a foot (sometimes two) in dissent, revolution, protest, and humanism.  And this spans every genre of popular music, from country (Dixie Chicks, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings), to folk (Woody Guthrie, Steve Goodman, John Prine, Pete Seeger), rock (Jefferson Airplane, MC5, the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, U2), metal (Metallica, Guns and Roses, System of a Down) hip hop (the NWA, the Fugees, KRS1, Immortal Technique, Atmosphere, the Coup), punk (Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Bad Religion, Anti-Flag, Rise Against).  and truly, any artist ever influenced by any of those already mentioned also carry with them the culture of dissent.  Personally, if they all just shut up and played music, it would be pretty uninspired, banal, and boring.

Shut up and play music?  Aye Aye, Captain!
The other complaint I read a lot is that the music sounds the same on every track and the guitar "screeching" is an unimaginative, old, and worn out gimmick.  First of all... if you want an album that is completely different from track to track with no similarity, or stylized fingerprint, buy a comp record like NOW 20, or Hot Hits of the 90s.  Second... one would have to be pretty dense to not appreciate the Tom Morello sound.  Not only has he adapted his play to incorporate sounds never before heard through an amplifier, but is able to seamlessly blend conventional playing with his more inventive style.  This makes me wonder if online boards had been around in the 60s and 80s, if similar statements would have been made of Hendrix, Tony Iommi, and Eddie Van Halen.

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