heavy rotation: rage against the machine – evil empire

the mid-1990s certainly could be described as a tumultuous time in the field of music, but i was too busy reading dr. seuss and playing with legos to really notice.  my parents raised me on a pretty steady diet of stan getz, dexter gordon, and classical music on npr; aside from the soundtrack to the commitments and a cranberries album, there wasn’t much in the way of current pop music in the house.  there definitely wasn’t even a whiff of rage against the machine to be found anywhere; even though they’re fairly liberal, brash politically-charged music didn’t exactly behoove two newly-minted academics working at a state university.  that’s understandable.

i don’t recall the precise circumstances that led me to rage against the machine, but i know it was sometime during my junior high years.  probably someone older than me was really into radical political ideology and i heard about them through the grapevine, but i can’t be sure.  anyways, i never saw my interest in the band as being grounded in politics.  at this point in my life i was predominantly listening to linkin park and snippets of commercial radio, but my thirteen year-old self was already growing tired of this mindless repetition.  i must have been tempted by the promise that rage against the machine was equal parts rap and metal, two genres i considered myself to be equally familiar with.

i worked mostly backwards through the band’s catalogue because my local best buy was rather poorly stocked, at least in my opinion.  i specify with “mostly” because even though a backtracking would indicate that i digested evil empire before their 1992 self-titled debut, that wasn’t the case.  my long-standing infatuation with live at the grand olympic auditorium and the songs the band included in their (at the time) final two set lists led me to believe that the bulk of their worthwhile music was contained within the battle of los angeles and that their nostalgic anthems were littered across rage against the machine.  by the time i did get around to evil empire, the songs fell flat for the most part and didn’t match up to what my expectations of rage against the machine had become.

as time passed and my musical horizons broadened, i largely left rage against the machine stored away in the fonder sections of my memory.  this was the band whose guitarist had primarily inspired me to start learning the instrument and whose frontman had exposed me to a dynamic stage persona as well as the importance of smart lyrics, but other artists were starting to fuel my artistic development in a more direct way and my overall palate was becoming less aggressive.  every once in awhile i would revisit the band for one reason or another, but the nostalgic trips never quite measured up to the original experience.

an unforeseen consequence of these forays was an increased immersion in and appreciation of evil empire as a part of rage against the machine’s discography.  a hesitancy to accept the album due to its comparative lack of familiarity turned into an understanding of its role in shaping the band’s musical trajectory.  while their self-titled debut certainly conformed to the basic definition of rap-metal, rage against the machine took a sharp left turn with evil empire.  elements of rap and elements of metal are undoubtedly present throughout the album, but they don’t always work in tandem; rather, evil empire feels more like a hip-hop album with heavy guitar riffs that occasionally crop up.

morello’s guitar playing had to change to fit this mold, and he executed the task by beginning to create the eclectic sound now so commonly associated with him.  he forgoes playing a single note on guitar in “people of the sun,” instead choosing to rub an allen wrench across the strings to create a unique timbral effect.  even when he does play riffs (which are found nearly everywhere else on the album), they often tend to be narrow and repetitive, essentially creating a live rendition of a sample for de la rocha to rap over.  equally important to the sound of evil empire is the prominent role of tim commerford’s bass lines.  the clean tone is swapped out in favor of increased amounts of distortion, fattening the overall tone of the band.  his opening line in “tire me” absolutely snarls and never loses momentum, while his role in “without a face” helps make the song one of rage’s funkiest.

the lyrics on evil empire can’t go unaddressed, either.  while rage against the machine was defined by angst, aggression, and de la rocha’s burgeoning talent as an emcee, its successor reads with a bit more finesse and use of metaphor, and even hints of the pensive reflection and anguish that would later be fully developed on the battle of los angeles’ “born of a broken man” and “maria.”  de la rocha voices his support for the zapatista movement, his disdain for cops, and the perils of right-wing radio all within the first ten minutes of the album, but the most powerful aspect of the album is the triptych of songs beginning with “tire me.”  easily the most musically diverse sequence throughout evil empire, de la rocha seethes commentary about 1970s foreign policy, gets downright militant about economic disparity, and supplies a first-person account of race relations in the united states.

other musicians may be defined by their political and social activism, but few can manage the variety of topics so thoroughly and effectively explored by rage against the machine.  largely devoid of profanity and slightly more subdued, evil empire conveyed this ideology in just as convincing of a manner while employing a heightened sense of musical intrigue.  that’s why, even a number of years later, the once black sheep of the band’s discography is now my first stop whenever i feel the need for a nostalgic fix.

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