There isn’t a song on Rage Against The Machine that would be a bad closer on the Sunday night of a festival. Each track brims with ferocious anger, and while I disagree with most of the political sentiments expressed on the record, Zack de la Roche’s paranoid, furious vocals compel me to hoist a red flag high and commit arson on my local community centre, or spraypaint ‘WAKE UP’ on the side of the local church, or scream names such as ‘puppet’ at a local news reporter for being a cog in the alleged machine.
There are myriad reasons why Rage Against The Machine is such a terrifically impressive album. One which ranks extremely high on the list for me is the production quality. For reference, listen to ‘Killing In The Name Of’, and then listen to ‘Bring Da Ruckus’ from Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). The latter came out in 1993; the former, 1992. Of course, Prince Rakeem didn’t have the same sort of equipment to work with as did Garth Richardson, and Wu-Tang Clan didn’t have the money to afford a top-quality recording studio. Still, it serves as a potent comparison. Each instrument on this record sounds totally crisp, completely clear; there seems to be absolutely no background noise; de la Roche’s vocals are absolutely clear; most of all, Brad Wilk’s drums are mixed to perfection. Indeed, much of the praise the album garnered on its release focused on its masterful production.
Another reason is because of just how incredible Tom Morello is on guitar. Not only was the album recorded with no samples, and a minimum of pedals (one expects those sounds to have come from a crammed pedal board, but it wasn’t the case—although there’s a definite phase or flange effect on ‘Township Rebellion’), but the solos on this record are unbelievable. Take the solo on ‘Take The Power Back’; its complexity, and just the utter speed of it, leave the listener wondering how a man can move his fingers so quickly (and this comes from a devotee of Stevie Ray Vaughan). The solo on ‘Know Your Enemy’, too, is hard to compete with. It’s not only the technical mastery of hitting the right notes at the right time, though, but the peculiar hip-hopesque sounds Morello manages to make—consider the strange DJ-like whirrs in the verses of ‘Bullet In The Head’, or his masterful execution of his custom-built killswitch at the beginning of ‘Know Your Enemy’. Morello set out to play his guitar parts in a way that emulated the sounds of hip-hop—and this is wonderfully complimented by the driving, pounding beats of Wilk.
A third reason is because of the original statement: every song is so beautifully constructed, and each of them lend themselves without fail to a drunken group of friends screaming along with Roche’s anarcho-communist rhetoric. A particular favourite of mine is the guitar riff from the verses of ‘Know Your Enemy’, which is comparable to ‘Hey Jude’ in its ability to make one just want to sing along. It goes without saying, of course, that the classic Christmas number one ‘Killing In The Name Of’ shares these attributes. Bill Hicks occasionally came on stage to it, too, which makes it all the more appealing for a man like myself, for whom Hicks is something of an idol (albeit a misinformed, conspiratorial one). For a long time ‘Freedom’ was my favourite on the album, purely for the moment all the tension is finally released at 3:57, and that riff which has been building for so long is let loose. Morello seems to have a particular talent for composing riffs which cause chaos on whichever part of the human chemistry it is that deals with music of such a transcendental nature.
But for all of these technical reasons, shall we call them, there are much more important personal reasons that Rage Against The Machine is one of my favourite albums of all time, and contains nine tracks to which I frequently return (with the exception of ‘Settle For Nothing’, which I don’t much like). Of course, there are always personal reasons that an album is so meaningful to a person, even when one disagrees so profoundly with almost everything told in the story of the lyrics, or even doesn’t like the music any more (something which I imagine lots of people have experienced with bands like, say, Blink-182). The reason is that it forcibly reminds me of my friends, particularly Kieran, with whom I have listened to this album more frequently than anyone else.
Rage Against The Machine is an archetypal driving album. Many of the times Kieran used to pick me up to go wherever we would go—our most recent excursion was to Dorset to visit Durdle Door, which was such a pleasant day it is difficult to adequately describe—this record would be the one we immediately played, only in competition with Black Sabbath’s sophomore effort, Paranoid. There is something extremely liberating about driving through quaint villages and towns in the South East of England, a cigarette in hand, next to one of your closest friends, blasting politically-motivated rap metal for the benefit of all the over-fifties. The point is that it reminds me of bygone times which didn’t even really exist—that stage of being young, rebellious, politically motivated but blissfully ignorant.
But it’s not only for nostalgic reasons that I love this album. It’s also because of a feeling of excitement it conjures in my gut whenever it begins to play. That relentlessly fast bass at the beginning of ‘Bombtrack’—if Rage Against The Machine didn’t begin every gig with that, then they were missing a trick. There is an extremely primal sound to metal music which RATM have managed to hone into something exquisitely sculptured, without losing any of that pure, essential fury so integral to the sound. It makes me feel very similarly to how I feel when Stevie Ray Vaughan’s ‘Texas Flood’ begins—Morello’s riffs are simply so accomplished, so well put together, that it actually makes me feel happier than I was in the moments before I heard it.
Years ago, Kieran, Chris and I went for a drive in his car and simply got lost. We drove around for hours, talking and smoking. We stopped at a pub, had a quick drink, jumped back in the car and attempted to find our way home. From what I remember, when I walked round to Chris’ house to get picked up, Rage Against The Machine was playing, and the excitement was instantaneous. It isn’t easy to put into words unless one has heard music which evokes the same sort of feeling—not sadness, not happiness exactly, but an intoxicating frenzy of emotion. All I can hope is the next time I get into Kieran’s car and we head towards our destination, wherever that may be, and on the way we play this album and Tim Commerford’s first pulsating bass notes begin, and then Wilk’s snare steadily rolls to a climax, and Morello tears at his guitar, and de la Roche howls down the microphone, the feeling hasn’t gone away.