Love the Machine You're With

Does Rage stir the revolution--or provide the soundtrack for the next white riot?

You say you want a revolution? Rage Against the Machine's "Testify" sounds like "Crosstown Traffic" trying to make it through the Watts Riots, a martial snare and a wondrous Hendrix-as-Sonic Youth guitar squall and a walloping stick-it-in-your-yeah! rap-rock rant from Zack de la Rocha that links bombs over Baghdad with oil dependency with wage slavery with fear with corruption with opiate media with opiate religion with shame with hate. Guitarist Tom Morello sounds like he's reinventing punk, metal, and funk one instinct at a time; bassist Tim Rob and drummer Brad Wilk machine-gun the bang-bang boogie. My walls start rattlin'. Paint chips keep fallin' on my head. And then the punch line: "It's right outside your door/Now, testify! Testify!"

Yes, I think for a fleeting moment. Yes, I will testify. I will reach for my flannel fatigues, download a copy of Molotov Cocktails: The Bartender's Guide, take to the street, and unleash my rage on...anything, anything corporate: the nearest, er, uh, well...I dunno. Post office? Arby's? SuperAmerica? Tell me, my dreadlocked commando, which one's goin' first? Where will the battle of Minneapolis, my guerrilla heroics begin?

Propaganda of the Dude:  (left to right) Rage Against the Machine's Brad Wilk,  Zack de la Rocha, Tim Rob, and Tom Morello
Propaganda of the Dude: (left to right) Rage Against the Machine's Brad Wilk, Zack de la Rocha, Tim Rob, and Tom Morello

Here we hit the much-discussed rub in the Rage equation. If I really look right outside my Pleasant Avenue door right now, at 3:00 p.m. on a Thursday, I can see, well, a few third-graders getting off the school bus, some guy raking his yard, and this other guy walking home from the Red Dragon with only one shoe on. Well, that last one might be a place to start. Yet if I were to run down to the corner and start yelling at this unorganized cadre about the Zapatistas, I fear my entreaties would fall upon unprepared ears.

Now, if your average Rage fan--young, white, and very probably overentitled whippersnapper that he is--looks right outside his door, he can see any of a number of equally perplexing tableaux. His glassy-eyed parents slouching home from a day of Dilbertian drudgery, for example. Or, if he's of voting age, his frat-house buddies snarfing ten-foot bong hits while they log frequent-flyer miles on animalpornbonanza.com. But he isn't all that likely to sense the consumerist ennui "Testify" attacks, even if, duh, said ennui is already all around him, blurring his vision and shrouding his every motion in a veil of living death. This is the most obvious contradiction in Rage's music, and any facile detractor can spot this flailing, thrashing, ranting barracuda in a barrel from a mile away.

But to hell with them: After seven years Rage have smoothed out the molten slug 'n' chug funk-metal of their first two boring, flatulent records into the ferocious rap-rock flame-throwing that is The Battle of Los Angeles. "Guerrilla Radio" propels shrapnel like no other single of the Nineties, and cuts such as "Calm Like a Bomb" and "Sleep Now in the Fire" squash extant indie-rock irony, Fred Durst's Method Man duet, and the new Celine Dion like so many boycotted grapes of wrath. It took 'em long enough, but Rage's music has caught up with their concept, and more power to 'em--or us, or La Raza, or whoever's supposed to get the power.

Still, even by the forgiving standards of Public Enemy or the Clash, de la Rocha remains a decidedly undialectical Marxist thinker. His missives makes Flavor Flav sound like Herbert Marcuse, and if Rage unveiled a triple album called Zapatista!, Zack probably wouldn't feel the need to expand or nuance his ideology beyond namedropping a few instructive Web sites, just as Morello would likely stick with his combustible blend of Eddie Hazel and My Bloody Valentine.

Long before Rage were the rage, political Cali-core forebears the Minutemen made anti-instinctual skronk to reflect singer D. Boon's running auto-critique, and, as Eric Weisbard recently pointed out in the Village Voice, the Gang of Four similarly made angular funk that worked your body like the capitalist system busts your chops. Both bands savored the paradoxes implicit in making leftist pop, but such hemming and hawing kept their authors, in the finest leftist tradition, well off the cultural map. Rage, by contrast, wanna get in the game, mass-culturally speaking. They hardly have time for gumming up the works with intellectual waffling. (There are lives hanging in the balance, damn it.)

Neither do they risk alienating fans by pulling a Fugazi and turning a critical lens outward into the pit. Battle spends plenty of time in death-row cells and on picket lines, but the closest Zack ever comes to speaking to the middle-class experience of his listeners is, "Everything can change on New Year's Day." That's not much to work with, even when the power grid freezes. And female fans might hope for something more than "Maria," which depicts illegal immigration from the perspective of a young woman. Considering the band's demographics, de la Rocha's inability to incorporate a real discussion of sexual politics into his saber rattling seems downright shameful. In a sense, the way Korn multitrack Jonathon Davis's vocals to evoke the fear, loathing, misogyny, and general bipolarity of the proto-Columbine psychopath feels more urgent, if only because the subject matter hits closer to home.

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