Rage still has something to say

November 02, 1999|By Steve Morse | Steve Morse,BOSTON GLOBE

Whether hard-rock music causes violence became a national issue again after the rioting at the close of Woodstock '99 in August. Rage Against the Machine, a band that boasts revolutionary messages as well as high decibels, was blamed -- along with other heavily amped bands such as Korn and Limp Bizkit -- for helping to incite the crowd.

It's a notion that Rage guitarist Tom Morello, 35, finds ridiculous.

"There was a horrific youth-bashing that went on in the wake of Woodstock," Morello says. "The vilification of young people gained a lot of momentum in this post-Columbine era, and it really came to a head in the aftermath of Woodstock ...there's still the belief that if young people listen to this music, it's going to lead them into a pagan frenzy."

Morello is dismayed by the reported sexual assaults at Woodstock, but otherwise he understands why part of the crowd ran wild and inflicted property damage at the end.

He says the damage was caused by youths being "milked the whole time" by high concession prices at what was "not a particularly fan-friendly event." It wasn't the music. It was the structure of the event, he says, adding that Rage Against the Machine's purpose has always been to expose unjust authority.

It thus comes as no surprise that Rage is still raging on its new album, "The Battle of Los Angeles," released yesterday. Unlike Korn and Limp Bizkit, which both have cartoon elements, Rage Against the Machine is a socially conscious juggernaut; instead of locker-room humor, the band's concerns are trying to free Mumia Abu-Jamal (a former Black Panther convicted of killing a police officer in Pennsylvania in what Morello believes was a frame-up), or extolling the Zapatista rebels of Mexico, or singing the praises of "Guerrilla Radio" -- the title of the group's current, red-hot radio single.

In terms of lyrics, Morello acknowledges that Rage is not even "on the same continent" as Korn and Bizkit, "though we tend to get lumped together because we have some things in common" -- meaning loud, metal-rap music. "But I like those bands and I think there is some unapologetic rocking quality to both of them, which is healthy."

As for the anger in Rage's music, it's heard in new, slam-bam songs "Born as Ghosts" (about "the school as a tomb"), "Ashes in the Fall" (with Rage rapper Zack de la Rocha decrying fascists) and "Calm Like a Bomb" (about the "rhyme of the unheard" in Third World countries).

Zack De la Rocha, a 29-year-old Chicano from Irvine, Calif., says his lyrics are inspired by political hip-hop outfits such as Public Enemy and socially conscious writers such as James Baldwin. The "Evil Empire" disc, in fact, included a suggested reading list of books by Che Guevara, Malcolm X, Henry Miller, Noam Chomsky, Jean-Paul Sartre and others.

"I try to write songs that engage people in a critical dialogue about fighting for and among dispossessed peoples around the world," de la Rocha recently told Time magazine.

Does Rage feel isolated in today's rock mainstream? There was a time when bands were more political as a rule, but today's era of MTV silliness is not that time.

"We don't sit around moping because there are not other bands in the Top 10 who have a similar ideological bent," says Morello.

"We just follow our convictions. But in a band like Rage, it's not just the politics. It's the rock that matters, too. And we happen to rock in a most convincing way."

Indeed, for many listeners, Rage's sound is unparalleled. De la Rocha yells his lungs out on one anthem after another, building tension, then releasing it with primal screams. The rhythm section of drummer Brad Wilk and bassist Tim Commerford rocks without the aid of drum loops.

And Morello has become a guitar god who, though weaned on the likes of Aerosmith's Joe Perry and Kiss' Ace Frehley, has developed his own style of siren-like screeches and grinding, pummeling effects that "sound like a combination of a rhino and a lawnmower," he says.

"It has just become my voice on the instrument. That is how I hear music now. It just spills out," he concludes. "I have kind of weaned myself away from a lot of the rock cliches."

Above all, Rage is surprised to have done so well with its metal-rap crossover sound and uncompromising lyrics. Since releasing its first album in 1992, Rage has rocked and shocked the mainstream with such tunes as "Killing in the Name," "Bullet to the Head" and its popular, amped-up cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Ghost of Tom Joad."

"Yes, we're surprised," Morello says. "We thought our rock would alienate the hip-hoppers and our hip-hop would alienate the rockers and that the way we looked would alienate a lot of others, and what Zack was singing about would leave everyone else out. And we were wrong about all four."

Wire services contributed to this article.

Music review

`The Battle of Los Angeles' (Epic) -- In 1999, Rage Against the Machine is a rock-music rarity, a band unafraid to protest this or question that.

On its third disc, nothing, thankfully, has changed: The quartet continues to successfully mine the same territory it did with its first two records. More lyrics about political unrest and injustice, more songs that combine the abrasiveness of rock with the infectiousness of hip-hop.

***

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