Have you ever tried writing your own Rage Against the Machine song? It’s easy. Just grab a religious pamphlet off the street. Replace the word God with killing, Jesus or Christ with a political prisoner like Mumia Abu-Jamal or Leonard Peltier, and scripture citations with swear words. Lines from a recently distributed tract — “Jesus came to the earth to take the penalty for our sins” and “all our evil has cut us off from God ‘for the wages of sin are death’ (Romans 6:23)” — become, “Peltier came to the earth/To take the penalty for our sins on himself./All our evil has cut us off from the killing/For the wages of sin are death, shit.”
The reason this works is because Rage Against the Machine are pushing an agenda as strong as any religion’s, and its argument hinges on a specific rhetorical style. The Battle of Los Angeles offers no change lyrically from Rage’s two previous albums: There are no love songs, just abused altar boys; no cries of alienation, just calls to arms for peasant Mexican rebels. The fact that music about events so removed from the lives of most American teens (even by analogy) has become immensely successful speaks to Rage’s preaching style: They come armed not with a sword but with a microphone, the strength of which they, like good insurgents, understand, as they rap about “the weapon of sound above ground” on Los Angeles‘ first single, “Guerrilla Radio.”
The band’s power on its past two albums has come from the combination of Tom Morello’s guitars — as riffy as Southern rock, as dirty as grunge, as insistent as hip-hop scratching — and Zack de la Rocha’s fire-and-brimstone rapping. But most of the time they haven’t gotten the mix right. They’ve let the message overpower the music, and, more egregiously, they’ve lifted the surface elements of hip-hop, funk and rock but overlooked the foundation: the beat, a tight rhythm section. Except for the rare chorus, Rage were leading a revival camp meeting with the lights on, singing the gospel without a choir. But on The Battle of Los Angeles, for the most part, they get it right.
Sonically, The Battle of Los Angeles is to rap metal what Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions . . . was to hip-hop: It brings the noise, with Morello’s guitar the equivalent of Terminator X’s turntables. Instead of taking a solo in “Mic Check,” the guitar is a helicopter, then it’s a turntable, then it’s a falling bomb. And de la Rocha’s voice croaks like a dance-hall rapper, whispers like a comrade in the bunker and lets the spittle fly like an overexcited MC with a speech impediment.
The record starts off with the explosion that Rage Against the Machine have always wanted to drop: The first three songs (“Testify,” “Guerrilla Radio,” “Calm Like a Bomb”) are near-perfect fusions of spit and fury. Hell, “Guerrilla Radio” even has a harmonica solo you can bang your head to. This is adrenaline-pumping rock & roll first, political agenda second. Only when de la Rocha wants to be heard most, and the music mutes so that it becomes simply accompaniment for spoken word, does the album falter, as on “War Within a Breath,” which sounds like a U2 parody.
George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” became the only Hare Krishna song to hit Number One, because it was so sweet and lulling that you could sing along without really thinking about the words. Rage Against the Machine show they’re onto this technique with the new album’s first song, “Testify,” in which de la Rocha sings about the passionless delivery of the news making the chaos of the world seem “bloodless.” In the exact opposite way, Rage make everything seem bloody and on the brink of cataclysm — where you see three nickels and a quarter in the paper cup of a homeless man begging for change, Rage see a revolution. But this time around, you don’t have to understand everything on de la Rocha’s cut-and-paste laundry list of political wrongdoing; just feel the crunch of the rhythm section, heed the machine-gun guitar attack, and catch a couple of random phrases — “I’m empty, please fill me . . . killing . . . I need you . . . now testify” — and the song works, whether it’s about the news or the nooky.
Rather than illuminate a political injustice with narrative (a la Dylan’s “Hurricane”), de la Rocha opts to incite with fiery slogans of agitprop. “All hell can’t stop us now” is the conclusion of “Guerrilla Radio”; “My panther, my brother/We are at war until you’re free” is the refrain of “Voice of the Voiceless,” a song about Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther on death row in Philadelphia for a cop murder he says he didn’t commit. Though some may find the lyrics naive and over the top, fans do take them to heart — though not always in context, as can be attested by anyone who saw the marauding teens chanting, “I won’t do what you tell me” as they lit a match to Woodstock ’99. Rage Against the Machine may never ignite the youth war they want to see. But at last, with The Battle of Los Angeles, they’ve managed to win a war within — one in which the band’s notoriously feuding members have come together to produce a sound that’s not quite louder than a bomb but that’s definitely as loud as Led Zeppelin II.