Though I love them, Rage Against the Machine and their music is always a little difficult for me to talk about.
Firstly, their (rather brilliant) debut album inspired a lot of really horrible music that flooded the airwaves throughout the 90s and the early 2000s.
For better or worse, nu-metal existed in the way it did because of them, and yes… Fred Durst.
There’s also the issue of vocalist Zack De La Rocha talking that loud revolutionary shit in his lyrics, all while the band made MILLIONS upon millions for the American music industry, thereby enabling, supporting, and ensuring the perseverance of one of the more predatory and oppressive institutions in our country.
I say this not the be negative, but because the band’s music is not consumed in a vacuum, and it’s important to acknowledge this.
Be that as it may, The Battle of Los Angeles is a MONSTER of an album. Groove, sonic fury, and texture galore, it’s the last full-length original statement that the band made, and for my money, their best.
Before getting to the meat and potatoes of things, it’s impossible to discuss the band’s music without acknowledging the sheer brilliance of the band’s chief sonic architect, guitarist, Tom Morello.
The man has IDEAS… LOTS of ideas
Seriously, how delighted is Nuno Bettencourt to be in Morello’s presence, watching him craft this winner of a guitar solo?
Most all of the songs on this album have a “guitar solo”— quotation marks, because they’re more of a textural experiment and/or noise expression than the traditional pentatonic workout found in popular music.
The build up to said solo is always the highlight of any song that he’s on, as he rarely comes with something that’s not at the very least, inspired, and often, flat-out brilliant.
In his hands, the guitar like a paintbrush or a chisel— he’s more interested in creating shapes or abstract patterning that’s nonetheless accessible, and often something you can probably whistle with, or hum to.
His riffage is often mighty, and he employs ye olde Drop D tuning to great effect.
The first three songs on the album amply showcase this.
“Testify” ranks amongst one of the band’s greatest accomplishments— something that sounds like the soundtrack for the most terrifying battlefield that mankind will ever experience. Here, Morello makes his guitar sound like a howling, deranged, out-of-tune air raid siren during the verses and like a sledgehammer during the choruses.
The sledgehammer action continues into, “Guerrilla Radio”, which may be most famous as the song featured in the opening titles of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2.
If you came up in the early 2000s and played video games, you know damn well you’ve shouted, “lights out, Guerrilla Radio… turn that shit up”, at least ONCE in your life.
Coincidentally, this was the song that made me fall in love with the band. When the solo comes along and Morello manages to make his guitar sound like a HARMONICA, it was pretty much a wrap for me.
“Calm Like a Bomb” follows, and may well be the best song on the album. It’s a raging GREASE FIRE of a tune that features some uncommonly violent (albeit funky) fuzz bass from Tim Cummerford, and a picture-framable solo from Morello.
Here, he somehow manages to make his guitar literally sound like a series of explosions— explosions that expand and contract, hitting the listener with sonic shockwave after sonic shockwave, for the better part of a minute. It’s a towering piece of ear candy, and just generally, a delight to listen to. I can’t imagine the joy he experienced coming up with it, because it’s truly the work of a sonic scientist.
From here on out, the album mostly keeps up with the barn burner motif, with only a couple of real respites in the mix.
The first of them, “Mic Check”, is probably the closest that the band ever came to making a straight up hip-hop song. There are no crunching power chords here— just more of that unruly fuzz bass courtesy of Cummerford, and some floating notes from Morello, save for when he does “Bulls of Parade” pt. 2 for the guitar solo.
The other winner when it comes to the more ostensibly, “low-key”, songs is “Maria”.
“Low-key”, is almost a misnomer here, as the song is both horrifying and anxiety-inducing.
The song is essentially the sound of the band firing on all cylinders. Drummer Brad Wilk gets to do his best John Bonham impression in the pre-chorus, Cummerford lays down some particularly rubbery and nimble bass, and De La Rocha spins perhaps his best narrative of mistreatment and plight.
And then, there’s the solo.
Here Morello, makes his guitar sound like a rooster, delirious as it caws, skittering to who knows where.
It’s just… it’s one of those things where when you hear it, you can help but be delighted.
It’s so unique, so original, and perhaps, almost a light moment, in an otherwise particularly dour (at least thematically) piece of music.
The album just doesn’t have a bad song on it. The other two standouts are “Sleep now in the Fire” (which got a Michael Moore directed music video) and “Ashes in the Fall” which contains one of the better riffs Morello wrote in an upper register.
The album turned 20 last year, and that’s so very hard to believe.
It doesn’t feel old— the production and performances have all aged well, and it just hits so damn hard.
As much as I love it, I only listen to it once or twice a year, as a treat to myself. I feel as though I do this as a way of ensuring the music stays special, but I’m not sure.
In any case, it’s magnificent. You know what to do.