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Opinion: New from Rage Against the Machine

November 29, 2012
By MARK J. MILLER - Staff writer ( , The Herald-Star

This week I review the 20th anniversary of Rage Against the Machine's groundbreaking, self-titled debut album, re-released this week by Sony/Legacy with lots of extra goodies.

"Rage Against the Machine - 20th Anniversary Edition"

During the years I lived in Portland, Ore., I was pretty much plugged into the Northwest music scene.

It was the age of Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Everclear and a thousand other less well-known bands. I used to see the members of these bands walking down the street or hanging out at a local club. It was the age of the anti-rock star, and it was pretty cool.

The music was pretty good, too - everything had a dark sheen over it, matching the gloomy Portland weather, and it seemed everyone was in a rock band. There was a thriving local indie scene, and you had musicians doing their thing in the evening at the local indie clubs and waiting tables, hustling or even stripping in the seedy nightclubs on the city's Northern District to make ends meet. "Anything Goes" was pretty much the mantra for this generation, and it was quite an eye-opening experience to witness artistry done in such a "do-it-yourself" fashion.

As good as the music was in the Northwest at the time, it was really a band from Los Angeles that really caught my ear.

Rage Against the Machine's debut album was striking for many things, but it was the cover photo of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk lighting himself on fire to protest oppression of his faith by the then-current regime that really caught my eye and signaled that this was going to be something totally different.

The uncompromising music titles were a declaration of war on the establishment - "Bombtrack," "Killing in the Name Of," "Take the Power Back," Bullet in the Head," "Know Your Enemy" and "Fistful of Steel." I was already hooked.

I bought the CD the first day it came out - Nov. 3, 1992, and although I thought the cover was provocative, it was nothing compared to the music inside. Incendiary, revolutionary, angry, desperate and completely rocking were the first thoughts that came to mind. The music was a stunning mix of Led Zeppelinesque riffs and hip- hop-inspired guitar work courtesy of guitarist Tom Morello. Rapper and lead antagonist Zach de la Rocha peppered his machine gun-delivery like shrapnel, delivering his progressive and revolutionary manifestos of social injustices with the zeal of a true rebel with a cause. Bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk were the best modern rock rhythm section since John Bonham and John Paul Jones.

Morello - a true shredder who is capable of jaw-dropping solos - based his approach instead on the tools of modern rappers such as the Bomb Squad from Public Enemy, scratching and using effects to get unheard-of sounds from his ax. The result is pure ear candy.

La Rocha would spit his declarations with a venom that was extraordinary, piercing the veil of conformity that mocked the silly, bombastic big-haired bands of the late 1980s as well as the slacker mentality Northwest rockers championed. His approach combined the explosive political rap of N.W.A. and Public Enemy with one ear cocked toward fellow revolutionary rockers such as the MC5 and even John Lennon and Yoko Ono. This wasn't just another angry young man of rock - la Rocha was on a mission, even if it was only him furthering the cause.

The music itself was another wonder - one-part James Brown, one-part Black Sabbath, as the band would craft one irresistibly funky, heavy groove after another. It's safe to say Rage Against the Machine was one of the most innovative and, I might add, aptly named bands of the past 20 years.

From classic metal to thrash to hip-hop, Rage had all the bases covered, and this was one of the smartest bands and most powerful debut albums I've ever experienced. The band's sonic attack propelled it to fame quickly with the mosh pit crowd, as well as attracting listeners who could have cared less about the band's political message but dug the heavy riffs.

The 20th anniversary edition comes in several formats, including one package of the original CD with three extra bonus cuts; one package with two CDs, including the original mix tape the band used to sell at early shows along with a DVD of the band live at various venues; and a package including both of those CDs along with an extra DVD of the band live in concert in 2010 along with a 180-gram vinyl copy of the band's first album.

Rage has never officially broken up, but they get together occasionally for political events or happenings. It all started here with one of the greatest modern rock records ever made. Highly recommended.

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