First Comes Rage — Then What? (

                     Though their polemics are less than convincing, Rage's singleminded intensity makes for some
                     inspiring music. 

                     By Chris Nelson 

     Tom Morello has wrenched and tweaked a dozen uncommon sounds from his guitar since Rage Against the Machine released their debut disc seven years ago. He's transformed heavy-metal strings into turntables for hip-hop scratching. On The Battle of Los Angeles' "Guerilla Radio," his alchemy calls forth a muted trumpet.
     But with "Voice of the Voiceless" (RealAudio excerpt), he conjures a vibe heretofore unknown in the Rage canon: overt, complex contradiction. 
     The song salutes the struggle of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who, from death row, has steadfastly maintained his innocence in the 1981 shooting of a Philadelphia police officer. A former Black Panther and journalist, Abu-Jamal has been elevated to an icon by free speech and anti–death penalty activists, and condemned as a remorseless killer by police supporters and victims' advocates.
     Morello opens "Voice of the Voiceless" with a combination of guitar drone and melody that converts his instrument into a corps of bagpipes. Before the angry riff thunder of each chorus, Morello evokes the sound of a police funeral at dawn, solemn and respectful.
     The question is, what does the sound mean? Are Rage Against the Machine — whose hard-line radicalism makes Billy Bragg appear mealy-mouthed — attempting to reconcile the opposing camps of pain in the Abu-Jamal case? To acknowledge that, while one man stands  to die, another lies already slain?
     It's an exhilarating idea, but ultimately a confusing one from a band that, throughout the new album, refers to cops as pigs, and that, despite this particular song, is unwilling or unable to explore life's ambiguities.
     That's a leap Rage may never make.
     Missed opportunities aside, The Battle of Los Angeles is Rage Against the Machine's most ambitious and
well-executed work.
      Over the course of their three albums, Rage — Morello, Zack de la Rocha (vocals), Tim Bob (bass) and Brad Wilk (drums) — have developed the sonic consistency of a Tom Petty. On The Battle of Los Angeles, they paint from the same multi-culti-metal palette, but continue to refine their technique. Bob's bass, previously overshadowed by Morello's inventive sounds, is more nimble, playing counterpoint to the guitar, rather than yes-man to the guitar's or drum's lead.
      De la Rocha, the self-proclaimed "anti-myth rhythm rock shocker," is beginning to stretch beyond esoteric or dogmatic lyrical bursts. With "Maria" (RealAudio excerpt), he presents a character sketch of a migrant garment worker rather than the slogans of anti-sweatshop demonstrators. On "Born of a Broken Man" (RealAudio excerpt), he offers clear and compelling imagery: "His thoughts like a hundred moths/ Trapped in a lampshade/ Somewhere within/ The wings banging and burning."
      Several references to the Gulf War and L.A. riots peg the roots of Rage's anger in the early '90s, but the more Frequent theme of hunger here helps to lift the LP off a timeline. Fire and its related imagery crackle on nine of the album's 12 songs. Meanwhile, no one on de la Rocha's side of the aisle speaks, they all "spit" in his lyrics: "fire," "nonfiction," "truth."
      In the end, Rage remain not "anti-myth," but propagators of new myths, ones in which Columbus and the
founding fathers are recast as villains and Che Guevara and Abu-Jamal the heroes. Rage Against the Machine's work is colored by the same oneness that pervades most protest music: a one-sided approach to issues, an unnatural emphasis upon a single emotion. 
Rating:4 of 5