If there is one thing that the members of Rage Against the Machine did very well, it was getting their message across. Being a political band in the music industry alone is hard enough alone, but when you attack the government, you face fifty million conservative people’s accusations and scrutiny. But Rage weren’t just another nihilistic band whose only concern was radical anarchy- they were educated individuals that studied politics when they weren’t making music. Tom Morello, guitarist for the band, graduated from Harvard University with a Bachelor Degree of Science in Political Sciences. He even patented his own toggle switch for his guitars to help his playing style and soloing technique. Rage Against the Machine were not just revolutionaries- they were idols. They stood against what they hated, regardless of the consequences. They did not just appeal to the liberal kids who thought anarchy was the hip fad, they appealed to kids who had trouble rising against the bullies, and the born leaders. After a volatile, raw debut album which blended the groove of funk (via the rhythms of drummer Brad Wilk & bassist Tim Commerford) with hard rock guitar riffs and the fierce, animistic rapping of Zach De La Rocha in 1991, and what is considered to be the best fist pumping song of the decade (Killing in the Name), Rage Against the Machine had become one of the most incendiary bands of their era, as well as earning a reputation as one of the most explosive bands to see live. Who would’ve thought a group of four southern California rebels would have a bigger fan base than the president himself…
When Rage sought to record a follow up to their raucous self titled debut, they wanted to go even heavier than what they did previously. And they did on Evil Empire. On Evil Empire, the raucous attitude is still there, but applied much more heavily. Zach’s vocals, in my opinion, are stronger than on any record, for his crooning, hostile attack, and gritty hip hop approach. It sounds much more raw and coarse than the polished rhymes on the other two records. His lyrics are of course, political, in the most plebeian, malicious manner you can expect. The content ranges from the consequences of staying silent as an anonymous witness (Without a Face) to graphic imagery of soldiers and military operations (Bulls On Parade), and Robin Hood like gore of patrolling Rodeo drive, killing off the rich (Down Rodeo). Zach’s screams are piercing and cathartic, while his cynical rhyming provides all the grit and dirt that seems to be the ingredient that so many Rage fans love. Paired with guitar feedback, and massive amounts of harsh, gritty distortions into the mix, and every radical in the world is hooked.
This time around, Tom Morello’s guitar playing is much more chord-oriented and gains a fierce, aggressive attack that was not heard on the debut. While the first record was groovy and riff fashioned, Tom Morello ditches the hard rock riffing in pursuit of a much more minimalist approach that does just as well a job that his hell raising riffs on the previous album did. He has always been a heavily effect-oriented guitarist, and he still uses the massive amounts of whammy pedals, wah-wahs, palm scraping distortions that you’ve come to love over the years, but stepped down a notch to let anger carry the music more than technicality. Something that becomes much more evident in his playing on Evil Empire is his use of feedback, distortion, and other non- conventional music sounds much more- Something Jimi Hendrix taught every electric guitar player with his rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. His guitar will screech, scream and wail completely out of cue, yet the timing is perfect to back up Zach De La Rocha’s furious vocals. His palm scraping guitar solo technique is still very cool to listen to, and mimicking a DJ has never been used in a better context than on Bulls on Parade. If you are looking for an album to get into Tom Morello’s more unconventional playing, Evil Empire is your pick.
But if the guitar and vocals are picturesque, and the riffing is heavy and the attitude is present, isn’t a Rage album already perfect? I’d hate to say it, but Evil Empire lacks the groove that the self titled and Battle of Los Angeles seemed to showcase. It focuses much more on gritty hip hop than grooving rock. And while grit and raunchiness is certainly entertaining, it does not hold up to the standards of their other albums. It does not get tedious, but it just lacks a head bobbing groove. Tim Commerford’s bass playing is certainly very cool, and his homemade, crunchy distortion is easily the nicest bass tone I’ve ever heard, his basslines just don’t dance as much. Brad Wilk was always a nonchalant drummer, but on Evil Empire, he is barely noticeable, and quite frankly, no one gives a *** about the drumming on the album. So on the basis of Evil Empire being a jagged, belligerent album to give a politician the finger to, its perfect, but rhythmically lacking the groove that makes every Rage album so good.
Rage Against The Machine is a very malignant metaphor. But for what? Is it really talking about anarchy, or can it be interpreted into a personal demon angst? The answer is both- Their music contains a message of personal liberty and the freedom to make your own choices without being controlled by a government, or in this case, a ‘machine’. Politicians view that approach as anarchy and unlawful, and anarchists see it as self-sufficiency. The hatred travels in circles, but finally, a group of four guys from California finally gained the courage to kick the sleazy politicians of America right in the gonads, and give them the finger as they fell. Evil Empire is exactly what Rage Against the Machine intended it to be- A nice big ‘*** You’. And they wouldn’t want it any other way.