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Rage Against the Machine

     Rage Against the Machine (Epic, 1992)
    Evil Empire (Epic, 1996)
      The Battle of Los Angeles (Epic, 1999)
    Renegades (Epic, 2000)

It's hard to say whether it was Rage Against the Machine's good luck or misfortune to have flourished during the Clinton years rather than the Constitution-shredding Bush years, when a revolution-rallying rock band led by a black man and a Chicano would surely have thoroughly eviscerated those behind Guantanamo Bay. During the band's late-Nineties heyday, the dot-com bubble made Rage's agit-prop rap rock seem quaint, even retro. But whether you were a follower or a nonbeliever, there was no denying the never-say-die conviction with which singer Zack de la Rocha carried himself onstage, or that guitarist Tom Morello, emulating turntablists with his toggle switch and whammy pedal, whipped out the first new set of tricks by an axeman since the birth of Eddie Van Halen. Less indelible were de la Rocha's screaming delivery, a rhythm section that could barely keep up and the nicked Hendrix riffs the band considered songwriting. And yet like most bands who quickly run a shallow formula into the ground, Rage crafted songs that jumped out of the bushes and grabbed you.

One such song was "Bullet to the Head," a standout on Rage's very strong, very aggro debut album. De la Rocha found his singing voice by way of Chuck D (which may be why Zack turns out to be a damn smart lyricist when you care enough to decipher the words). The group sticks to its formula on Evil Empire, to wearying effect. Still, "Bulls on Parade" and "Year of the Boomerang" wrings a couple of minor punk-funk miracles out of Rage's self-imposed clichédom. The sinister and provocative boy-superhero cover art is priceless because the band's rowdy Wonderbread fan base included many look-alikes.

The Battle of Los Angeles was the last stand for the street fightin' quartet. But wouldn't you know, this is also when they decided to cut the b.s. and drop a bona fide killer worthy of the hard-rock canon. Rage's demise was publicly precipitated by a beef between the singer and the bass player, the former accusing the latter of not taking the group's image seriously when the latter engaged in a drunken MTV Awards prank. There's evidence of real musical growth here, particularly in Tim Bob's thick, Bootsylicious, Mutron-filtered bass sound. Morello raises his game riff-wise and magic-wand-wise, too. The machine-shop tricks are deployed more pungently, lyrically, and orchestrally than before. The results are as Bomb Squad–inspired as ever but also more surreal, psychedelic, and Morricone-like than Public Enemy ever was. De la Rocha almost considers crooning to be an option in a couple of places. His quiet, whispery voice makes several scary, sardonic appearances on the disc, and this sucker swings, funks, rocks, moshes, and rolls from track to track. After which another good band on the way to greatness bit the dust.

Released postbreakup, Renegades is a covers record. Some of the choices seem almost laughably obvious—"Street Fighting Man" and "Kick Out the Jams" in particular. Springsteen's "The Ghost of Tom Joad" and Dylan's "Maggie's Farm" weren't great ideas, but there is a magic moment when de la Rocha makes like a sexy beast delivering the line. "It's a shame how she makes me scrub the floor" as Morello uncharacteristically drops a diminished chordal riposte into the mix. Although Rage's hip-hop covers—Rakim's "Microphone Fiend," Cypress Hill's "How I Could Just Kill a Man," and EPMD's "I'm Housin'"—are shot full of love, balls, and admiration, the leaden funk-metal workout reminds us that a good beat is akin to God in the flesh and that history isn't kind to rapping rockers who commit the cardinal sin of having no flow.

After Rage Against the Machine split up in 2000, Morello worked on projects of varying quality and popularity—notably, Audioslave, which was fronted by Chris Cornell, and the Nightwatchmen, which was Morello is acoustic guise. In 2007, Rage reunited for a set at the Coachella music festival. More shows followed that year and in 2008, when the band played a series of gigs to coincide with the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. As of early 2010, it was uncertain whether the band will again record together.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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