Ahh the 90’s. I am so stuck there musically. One of the monoliths of the decade was Rage Against the Machine, but I did not get into them straight away. It was not until 1998 I bought their first album after hearing everyone I knew raving about it, and playing their hit song Killing in the Name. An impressive debut, I thought to myself, why don’t I check out their other album. I rushed out to get Evil Empire, whacked it in the CD player, and… was disappointed. I didn’t like the change in sound between this and the previous album. I wanted something hard, something heavy, a step up from the last album. I didn’t get it here, so I explored elsewhere diving into the metal genre headfirst. So it went away, waiting patiently for my obsession with metal to subside. As I peruse my precious MP3 player with all my music contained precariously within, I stumble across this album again to take a belated second view on it, this time with a different frame of mind.
Enough about me. Rage Against the Machine’s sound is dominated by Tom Morello’s unique, inventive, sometimes groovy, other times punishing guitar and Zach De La Rocha’s gruff nasal rapping. I don’t like rap, but Zack’s vocals is tolerable most of the time, and awesome in his rhythm and rhyme at best. The rhythm section of the band, Tim Bob on bass and Brad Wilk, do what is needed, which is provide the canvas for the two other members to paint their masterpieces. Occasionally, both show off by providing an outstanding line or fill, but this is not their place, and the band gels well with Tom and Zach complementing each other in the foreground.
The band itself is somewhat of a protest band, diving frequently into American domestic and international politics with themes such as cheap foreign labour, censorship, and war. Unlike other bands passing a message through their music, Rage can deliver a message without compromising the music, and the songs pass without you noticing overtly political lyrics. So the element of music with meaning is there if you are that way inclined, or if you just want to rock out that’s cool too.
The album opens up with the effects filled main riff of People of the Sun. The drums come in with a simple beat, and the bass lets out a nice line before Zach’s rapping opens up. His voice really suits this song during the groovy verse, then the chorus really opens up the sound to give you a taste of what these guys do well and is a great album opener. The anthemic Bulls on Parade follow closely, and after the loud opening riff Tom shows us the wah pedal in a big way, with a wah-riff which dominates the song. Some more good, dare I say it, rapping from Zack in the early parts of the song builds the mood for the first couple of chorus verse combos. An inventive solo made up of scratching and wah from Tom lead us into the final climactic chorus and the band show off some groove and chemistry to round out the big single from the album.
How do you follow that finish? With Vietnow, fool. This song is all about how it make you start tapping your feet, then the head starts to nod. This song seems simple in its catchy beat and intermittent guitar and bass bursts, but Zach settles in best in this song with his rhythm hogging the song. This is its downfall though, when in the middle of the song in between choruses when Tom is usually blazing away nothing is really happening, so it sort of loses its way after the promising opening. Revolver is next with 40 seconds of effects noises. This song takes a while to build, with the first verse being very slow and Zach turning to whispering. Finally the catchy chorus blasts out to take this song somewhere, but returns to the quiet chorus. You can feel the song building, but you know it will be to only a big final chorus. It is good, but lacking the creativity of their self-titled album, and is ultimately a poor effort at something different.
The album needs a lift after one and a half bad songs, so they gave us Snakecharmer. A lot more upbeat than those before it, Snakecharmer builds through a couple of pairs of verses and choruses, but a really poor solo/fill from Tom’s guitar slows the song’s momentum. Zack’s emotion filled vocals setting them up to knock them over towards the end of the song makes up for it though, despite the song backs itself into a corner with the monocline “interested in you” chorus which ends with Zack speaking the line. Tire Me opens with a cool bass line with some tingle on the symbols. The vocal enter this time less rappy, and a guitar noise sort of tinkering in the background. They manage to build the mood in one verse for a change, and it is a welcome change, and the upbeat chorus takes you by surprise. With interest renewed, the song cranks on with a cool guitar riff catching the ears. The song stops in an instant with some lone vocals, then kicks back into gear for the great finish. Album highlight.
After the previous pair of songs giving us faster, catchier songs, we are confronted with Down Rodeo. This song is infused with a hip-hop beat, bass line, and rapping. The chorus is more rock-like, to return to the groovy chorus. The song grinds along with a filler bit characteristic of Tom in the middle, but the song repeats itself and not much really happens. Without A Face continues the rap songs. It has an a-typical beat for the verse with a rap influences bass line, and a weird guitar bit in the background of one guitar note played a lot fast. The chorus is rock inspired again, has a guitar solo-like filler in the middle again, and a slow, loud climactic finish again. Wind Below is next, and I can see now why I put this album away. It is another song dominated by vocals at the extreme rap end of Zach’s scale, a simple beat and bass line, and guitar noise in the background. This song escalates the annoyance factor though with mega-phone style vocal distortion in the chorus, and the guitar fill in the middle has an echo effect. The song seems like it is going to peter out to nothing with a distinct lack of noise before… a slow, loud finish.
Two songs left, common guys, do something. A promising riff opens the ears ready for something redeemable, but the song turns its back on it for another rappy song similar to the previous three. The riff returns in the chorus, but only briefly. During the second chorus there are some bongos which feel out of place, and Zach tries to deliver some more emotional vocals but falls flat. Will this song finish? Oh yeh, its been four separate tracks… The last song is Year of tha Boomerang, and I don’t remember anything about it. It opens up with a noise like a guy with no hands trying to play a violin with his teeth. More rap, a strange interlude between verses, and then the violin man returns for the chorus. Ah, its horrible, make it stop. But wait the song starts to rock out at the end. Its like they knew it was too late to rescue the song and the end of the album, so they squander any momentum gained by the good bit to return to rapped verses and the violin dude. Game over.
So, what can I say? This is like two separate albums. The first half made by decent songwriters, a good vocalist, and an inventive guitarist. The second half is a rap overload with Zach not diverting away from poor vocals. I like his effort in the first half, because the rapping was measured and not overdone, but its all you encounter towards the end. This pushes Tom Morello to the background making childish noises, and playing the guitar in a uninspired fashion too. Tim and Brad don’t do anything wrong, but they don’t stand up to take a song by the balls and blow it apart. Unfortunately, there are standout tracks which are up there with the best from this band amidst a desert of poor songs.
-First six tracks, download Bulls on Parade, Vietnow, and Tire Me.