The band’s debut 1992 album Rage Against the Machine is probably one of my favourite albums of all time but also one that I most definitely have to be in the mood for, because it’s so damn angry! Listening to it these days makes me a little melancholy because it transports me back in time to the 90’s when I used to have the vim and vigour to ‘dance’ to this kind of stuff quite regularly down at the Student’s Union.
The combination of the band’s angry rap, excellent guitar riffs and a political message hit the nail right on the head with a massive sledgehammer for me back when I was a young man. I recall seeing a live performance of theirs on a late Friday night music programme on Channel 4 (back when those kind of things still existed) and marvelling at Zack de la Rocha’s spat out lines and how guitar legend Tom Morello used feedback from the amps to get his guitar to make some crazy-ass sounds.
I heard their amazingly different sounding album in 1992 in a listening booth in an indie record shop in Leicester, which has probably since become a mobile phone shop. The black and white picture of a burning monk protesting the Vietnam government on the cover really grabbed my attention and I was so happy to have found the album of ‘that band I saw on TV’. No-one I knew seemed to have heard of them and it felt like I had made a discovery instead of just following the lead of my friends who introduced me to most of the music I was listening to at the time.
‘Bombtrack’ fools you into turning up the volume and is a great opening track. It’s probably my favourite on the album, and phew! there’s some stiff competition. Like ‘Killing in the Name’ which along with the mosh-tastic ‘Bullet in the Head’ (to which I used to lose my shit at around the 3 minute mark) was the Student Union indie disco favourite. ‘Killing in the Name’ has the amazing guitar noises at the ‘come on!’ 3:50 mark and a glorious rising “Fuck you…’ repetition toward 4:30 ending on ‘Motherfucker!’. I mean really, what’s not to like?
‘Take the Power Back’ has some great rapping and the bit where it rises to de la Rocha’s fave line ‘bring that shit in!’ is a thing of funk-tastic beauty with some great spat bars. ‘Settle for Nothing’ is the one track I can happily skip if I’m not in the mood, it’s almost unlistenable in places, but if I do I know I’ll be missing a nice guitar solo at around the 3 minute mark. ‘Know Your Enemy’ is so much better with great riffs and a rocking finale at around 4:10 with ‘Come on! Yes I know my enemies…’ but de la Rocha labours the point at the end with too many ‘All of which are American dreams…’
I also love the power of ‘Wake Up!’ and was thrilled to hear the track on the end of The Matrix, and also ‘Calm Like a Bomb’ on Matrix Reloaded. Why oh why they didn’t get the gig for Matrix Revolutions lord only knows. Perhaps the band saw Reloaded and refused to do it? Anyway here’s an amazingly good cover of ‘Wake Up!’ by Brass Against.
‘Fistful of Steel’ is also a good track, but I’m usually exhausted by this point in the album. It’s not an album you can just sit back and listen to. It demands participation – rapping, air-guitaring and head nodding. There’s some great fret noises on this track and huge musical crescendos. ‘Township Rebellion’ seems a bit repetitive and musically peculiar. ‘Freedom’ sounds like a reprise of the previous track until it gets its own vibe with some great word play, rocking tempo changes, furious roars and some Carlos Santana-esque interludes among all the musical mayhem.
I just love the album. The other three RATM albums tend to have less of an effect. I think I had worked through my angry phase by the time Evil Empire arrived in 1996 and I didn’t pick up The Battle of Los Angeles (1999) or Renegades (2000) until much later from a Fopp store in Nottingham.
Stand out tracks for me from Evil Empire are ‘Bulls on Parade’ – where I don’t mind the repetition of lines so much because of the great rock tune and the chugging wah-wah guitar lines and the squiggly fretted guitar solo. Also it should be noted that Brad Wilk’s drumming is just awesome on this track (actually on most of their tracks if you can pull yourself away from the riffs and rapping for long enough) – and ‘Vietnow’ – which is how Beastie Boys might have sounded in a parallel world where they went all political after ‘Sabotage’ and found some great RATM rock riffs to sample.
Seems to me like de la Rocha doesn’t really do much rapping on this album and seems to be mostly fighting with the musicality of the rest of the band. I’d like hear some of the tracks as straight instrumentals. But then when he does get some space for his spitting groove on ‘Down Rodeo’, ‘Without a Face’, ‘Roll Right’ and ‘Year of the Boomerang’ it all seems to sound much better. On the whole the album feels a lot looser and not just a case of ‘same again’ from the debut album, but I’m not sure that’s what I really want.
‘Testify’ the opening on track on The Battle of Los Angeles does seem to be back to the formula that worked so well for me on the debut and one of my favourites ‘Guerrilla Radio’ keeps the riff/rap groove going. Did I mention the bass player Tim Bob is pretty good too? Then we get the oddly sonically rotating ‘Calm Like a Bomb’ with a repeating guitar loop in the background that sounds like some kind of emergency service siren and has made me slow down and look in my rear view mirror if I’m driving. here’s Michael Moore’s video for ‘Testify’:
‘Mic Check’ sounds almost like a big beat track by Unkle with sound big ol’ farting guitar bursts over the top of some serious fret scratching and drum work. ‘Born of a Broken Man’ for me has something quite haunting about it woven into all the metal mayhem and some of the soft guitar solo sounded a bit like The Doors to me.
‘Born As Ghosts,’ ‘Maria’ (great wiggly waggly guitar tomfoolery) and ‘Voice of the Voiceless’ (shortest track but awesome big riffs) just cement the thought that Evil Empire was RATM’s ‘difficult second album’ and that they’re back on form here. For sure, listening to it for this post I feel I really need to give this album more play time.
For instance I forgot how good ‘New Millennium Homes’ was and how the hook from the very heartfelt ‘Ashes in the Fall’ sounds a bit like the hook from the theme tune to 80s kid’s TV show Dogtanian – Muskehounds are always ready! And that lyrically it kind of relates back to ‘The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again’ – ‘this is the new sound, just like the old sound…’
Renegades is RATM’s last studio album and consists of well-executed rock/rap covers of songs by the likes of Bob Dylan, Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Devo, Eric B. & Rakim, MC5 and Cypress Hill. So it’s a mixed bunch and I see it more of a curiosity than something that stands on the same level as the other three albums of original music. Don’t get me wrong, I like cover versions, and they make the tracks their own in true X-Factor style (‘How I Could Just Kill A Man’ is arguably superior to the original), but cover versions really isn’t what RATM is about. That said, you can’t help but like the ‘title’ track:
Poppin’, sockin’, rockin’ puttin’ a side of hip-hop indeed.