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