The Battle of Los Angeles is Rage Against the Machine's first album in three years. That the stridently political act released its most pointed statement to date on Election Day, November 2, 1999, is not a coincidence. Everything about Rage Against the Machine drives home a point to fans, casual or otherwise: The time for change is now.
The band has answered its own call by launching its biggest tour yet, playing exclusively as headliners in venues no smaller than arenas. That makes for a campaign trail that even the most experienced politician would envy. RATM laid the groundwork for the tour this fall with a handful of high-profile club gigs at various points around the globe, but now the campaign is in full swing.
The first single off The Battle of Los Angeles, "Guerrilla Radio," is a statement of purpose. Frontman Zack de la Rocha raps: "Transmission third world war third round / A decade of the weapon of sound above ground / Ain't no shelter if you're looking for shade / I lick shots at the brutal charade." The song, as is the case with the bulk of the album, is simply relentless. And it pulls no punches in letting the listener know that the current crop of political candidates isn't the answer. "More for Gore or the son of a drug lord / none of the above, fuck it, cut the cord." No longer a call to simply turn off the radio, Rage Against the Machine now demands we take it over.
"It's what I always hoped to do," says 35-year-old Harvard graduate and Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello regarding his current pop platform. "Though when I arrived in Los Angeles in 1986 it was the height of the glam-metal craze. And while I had these grand visions of a band that was political and very heavy and maybe had a rap element to it, at that time it was bands like Poison on the one hand and Prince on the other that were sort of dominating the charts. There really wasn't any room for a left-leaning Sabbath/Run-D.M.C. amalgam." Morello laughs as if to ask rhetorically "and why should there have been?"
"When we started, we were very much a rock band with some ideas," continues Morello. "But as the audience has grown, our aspirations have grown as well. We still carry our mission one song at a time, one show at a time."
RATM's mission seems to have found a receptive audience in the present culture. The shows have been selling out and selling out quickly, despite the fact that the halls involved are by far the largest Rage Against the Machine has ever played on its own. Audiences already seem to know the new album inside and out. All in all, Morello describes the experience modestly but enthusiastically as "pretty reaffirming."
Yet despite the overtness of Rage Against the Machine's message -- contained, in some way, on every T-shirt, video and song the band has ever produced -- there is still a segment of the crowd on any given night that's there simply to get down rather than to philosophize.
"Of course there are people who come to principally rock out," says Morello. "I don't think there's any problem with that. We've never been an elitist band with regard to the music that we play. You don't have to fill out an application to get into the concert hall with your political activist credentials. We don't play music that is exclusively for intellectuals on the coasts in the coffee houses. We play big rock and roll music that devastates arenas and connects on a very visceral level. But there's a virus contained in it. People who come to the band for the music eventually leave with something very different than they may with bands that have a similar sort of aggression to their music."
Virus is right. RATM can take an ordinary scene and invest it with darker imagery. On "Calm Like a Bomb," de la Rocha raps: "These vultures rob everything / Leave nothing but chains / Pick a point on the globe / Yes the picture's the same / There's a bank and a church a myth and a hearse / A mall and a loan a child dead at birth."
Though not one to point fingers and name names, it's clear that Morello doesn't give most of the current crop of heavy or rap music purveyors much thought. Yet there must be at least some irony, if not downright contradiction, in filling the same halls and pulling money from the same wallets as (and often at a faster rate than) all the neo-hedonistic, misogynistic, troubled watt pushers out there. And that's to say nothing of being enabled by the same industrial machine (Sony, in RATM's case) that both pimps the world's musical clowns and enslaves the people who buy and make its products.
"There's no precedent for what we're doing," says Morello. "There's never been a band with politics this radical that's sold ten million records. So there's no blueprint for this. If you're a band that wants to party hard and sell ten million records, there's plenty of precedent for that. Read Led Zeppelin's Hammer of the Gods or watch the Rolling Stones video, and you'll know exactly what to do and exactly who with and in what city. But with Rage Against the Machine, it's pretty much uncharted territory. I honestly don't put any cap on what sort of change a band can effect. I think it remains to be seen. We were inspired by bands like the Clash, Public Enemy, Fugazi, the MC5 and Bob Marley. And I think there's still the opportunity for bands in 1999 and the new millennium to do more. We don't limit ourselves by what other bands have accomplished in terms of political activism."
Mainstream radio (outside of Houston, anyway) has jumped on "Guerrilla Radio" with both feet, pushing it almost immediately toward the top of the charts and offering further evidence that all is going according to plan in the Rage Against the Machine camp. For in addition to the most pointed lyrics yet penned by vocalist de la Rocha, Rage Against the Machine's new record is one the heaviest and most jagged yet stereotypically metal records Morello, bassist Y.tim.K and drummer Brad Wilk have ever created. The band's trademark riffs and grooves are still there, in some cases bigger than ever.
"Some of my favorite 'hard' records are by, say, Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath," explains Morello, "where the guitar tones themselves are not akin to Slayer or Metallica with the ¨berdistortion. We made a record that on the one hand is uncompromisingly heavy, but all those big riffs swing as well. I used guitars for some of the biggest riffs on the record that had single coil pickups. More Jimmy Page than Kirk Hammet."
Revolution through heavy rock? Who knows. But it doesn't get much more explicit than "War Within a Breath": "A black flag and a red star / A rising sun looming over Los Angeles / Cause for Raza livin in LaLa / Is like Gaza on to the down of the Intifada / Reach for the lessons that masked pass on / And seize the metropolis / It's you that it's built on."
Rage Against the Machine performs Sunday, December 12, at Compaq Center, 10 Greenway Plaza. For ticket information call (713)629-3700.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.