Rage Against The Machine’s 1992 debut is perhaps the most universally celebrated record in modern rock history. ‘Killing in the Name’, ‘Bombtrack’ and ‘Freedom’ are some of the most iconic tracks of the era, and they have lived to tell the tale too. Their signature brand of funk metal infused with social and political rhetoric seems almost too specific a niché to survive long term, and yet here we are, 27 years on, and that’s your intro. You know that record, everyone knows that record. That being said, Rage would never really capture that level of hype and critical acclaim again unfortunately, at least not with an album (we’re not going to talk about THAT Christmas right now) but the closest they came… was 1999’s The Battle of Los Angeles.
To set the tone from the off here, I think this album is underrated. I think even despite its brush with mainstream appeal, it deserved better. There are some real gems that have stood the test of time and come out still swinging. Industrial etchings of guitar explode into the incendiary ‘Testify’. Zach de la Rocha condemns the handling of US military operations overseas with his damnedest imagery, urging accountability and reform. The Orwellian-inspired bridge on this number swells to deliver you one last turbo-charged chorus and it’s all cylinders and then some. As good as an opener gets.
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Next up, ‘Guerrilla Radio’, and it’s loaded with a top five intro of the 90s. Seriously. Never gets old. The impressive part? Not even iconic guitarist Tom Morello’s best work ON THIS TRACK. The solo is bent and warped to sound like a harmonica, and it’s absolutely insane. Blew my little head off playing Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2. Anyway, here the band lead a call to arms over where power is situated (being incredibly critical of the 2000 presidential candidates as they go) and what we do to stay ahead of the curve, referencing the ways in which information got out to those in need in times of war historically. Rage want to be that radio that get the knowledge to you. “All hell can’t stop us now!”
‘Calm Like A Bomb’ opens with a upbeat bass lick, but it’s not too long before you’re face to face with that patented madness once again. The guitar line shrieks like a boiling kettle, urgent, insinuating fever pitch, and you’ll know we’re there soon. Martin Luther King is even paraphrased, right before that perfect punk/funk hybrid hook bashes you in the head. Side note/spoiler: they are NOT calm.
‘Mic Check’ is a comparatively softer affair. The rhythm section of Brad Wilk (drums) and Tim Commerford (bass) keep it simple; Morello too for the most part is keeping it melodic and clean. Things get jazzier and more abstract after the second chorus, sure, but after the one-two punch we started with… it’s respite.
‘Sleep Now In The Fire’ is a punishing denunciation, intent on dismantling the folkloric revisionist history of America. “For it’s the end of history/ It’s caged and frozen still/ There is no other pill to take, so swallow the one that makes you ill”. On the topic, that riff. That bloody riff. Hendrix-esque.
‘Born of a Broken Man’ and ‘Born as Ghosts’ play in the same ballpark. The former expounds on Beto de la Rocha’s strife, and son Zach’s by extension (and alone); his unwilling to be bowled over in his fight against the troubles of the day. The latter track however poses the idea none of us may have ever really stood a chance to begin with. It’s a really interesting and brutally introspective portion of the album, and leaves you with a couple more questions than answers.
‘Maria’ is a heart-wrenching tale of the plight of an immigrant, essentially sold into slavery and thus doomed to death by her conditions and quality of life. No quotes here, no sonic breakdown and I’ll explain no further; experience this song for yourself in you haven’t already.
The frenzied glitching all over the verses of ‘Voice of the Voiceless’ strangely draws attention towards the lyricism rather than taking away from it. The spotlight shines brightly on the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal (not for the only time on this record, but most prominently) a former Black Panther jailed some seventeen years before the song’s penning. Despite this, Zach and the band insist atop their lungs “you’ll never silence the voice of the voiceless!”.
‘New Millennium Homes’ is disgracefully just as apposite to today’s world as it was in ’99. The plan is set, and the quartet aren’t letting up about taking it to the people (“livin’ been warfare, I press it to CD!”). There’s a clear framework; inspire the destabilisation of high society in an attempt to give everyone a reasonable living.
Forgotten gem ‘Ashes in the Fall’ lurks a while. The musicianship frequently hints at more, applying pressure with its textures. The dialling-tone guitar manipulation all over the second hook doubles down… something is coming. “Ain’t the new sound, just like the old sound?” Before you know it… pandemonium. Erratic, ranting, incensed, upset. The group are loud and all over the place. The second half of this track is one of the best spots on the album, honestly. A total high-wire act.
‘War Within A Breath’ takes us home, chronicling the rebellion of the Zapatista Army, a movement ingrained deeply in the identity of Rage Against the Machine (the use of their flag, Zach’s own grandfather fighting in the Mexican Revolution, a precursor to the formation of the Army). The chorus is heavy-handed and memorable, and the track ultimately crashes out in style with siren-like feedback. Fitting.
The Battle of Los Angeles was the last original full-length of material the band would release, and it is a HELL of a way to go out. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea… a laser-focused political manifesto advocating a hard reset by way of anarchy, and as subtle as a brick in the face. Bold, loud, unashamed and “went out on a high” is an obituary a lot of bands could only dream of, but for Rage Against the Machine that’s exactly where we’ve arrived.