Rage Against the Machine - The Battle of Los Angeles (1999)
Sadly, Today Is Not The Day.
The Battle of Los Angeles was my introduction to Rage Against The Machine back when I was young enough that I didn't understand the entire premise behind the music they made. It didn't stop me from enjoying it though, as I would blast "Guerrilla Radio", "Born of a Broken Man", "Testify", and sometimes the entire album through my IPod on bus or car rides. Tom Morello's signature wonky guitar work plus Zack de la Rocha's aggressive vocal delivery coupled with redundant but effective songwriting was something that was exciting for younger me and not much has changed over the years, with The Battle of Los Angeles hitting just as hard as I remember. Intentionally dating reviews is normally a frowned upon tactic as the writer normally wants it to be timeless, but I think everyone can agree that Rage Against The Machine deserves some special treatment, since it's nigh impossible to accurately discuss the band without offering some sort of background on what the world's political and social climate is like. If you take a glance at the date that this review was written...what a time to go back to a Rage Against The Machine album, huh? How in the hell is this album 20 years old and every single one of these tracks still rings truer than ever?
After going back and properly listening to Rage's debut album, it gave me so much more perspective on this album I enjoyed so much years ago, to the point where I started using adjectives that I never thought I'd use to describe Rage Against The Machine. The Battle of Los Angeles is much more refined and mature than their debut, all while maintaining much of the raw power they had back in 1992. They're also much more tactful and profound in the lyrics that de la Rocha chooses to use, with obvious references and statements being replaced with more poetic and interpretive lines. Their stance is still obvious, don't get me wrong, but very few songs are as straight shooting as something like "Killing In The Name" off of their debut album. Refined, mature, tactful, and even restrained in some cases are words I never thought I'd use to describe Rage, but it works wonderfully to create a powerful but distinctive experience that expands on and goes beyond what the band is known for. They take on a multitude of different topics ranging from slavery, poverty, war crimes, and overall corruption that provides a chilling portrait of all the injustices and toxic beliefs that are still rampant today. While their debut was more of a call to action against unjust practices in the United States, The Battle of Los Angeles seems to focus on raising awareness that certain injustices are still occurring even though people in power try their best to convince us that they aren't. Which is still all too true.
Even though Rage are a bit more restrained in this album, it doesn't stop them from pounding out some of the best riffs in the band's history, ranging from "Guerrilla Radio's" main riff, the powerful bass riff of "Calm Like a Bomb", and my personal favorite riff from "Born of a Broken Man". While the drums aren't quite as punchy and the bass is pushed a little farther back in the mix, the way the entire production comes together still hits incredibly hard and is the most balanced their sound has ever been. It also has the most variety the band has ever had, which is a huge plus as Rage's song structure remained largely the same for their entire career. Morello's crazy guitar sounds are utilized more than ever, with incredibly unique sounds being used on "Mic Check", "Maria", and "Ashes in the Fall" to give each their own distinct identity. De la Rocha's delivery has also gotten more consistent and has more emotion and dynamics to it, which makes his repetitive choruses have more punch to them, especially on tracks like "Voice of the Voiceless" and "Born as Ghosts".
Even though Rage better mastered their craft on The Battle of Los Angeles, I think they lost some of the edge that really made them originally stand out. Even though tracks like "Mic Check" and "War Within a Breath" have more layers of songwriting, there's something to be said about an aggressively straightforward approach. Even though the big moments like the end of "Ashes in the Fall" and "Testify" go incredibly hard, I can't help but want something even more impactful than what they gave. The Battle of Los Angeles shows that Rage still had a ton of ideas of how to augment their winning formula without straying too far like they did on Evil Empire, but it's so focused that it burns itself out on repeated listens or even by the second half of the album. While there is still a ton of raw emotion and passion about their cause in here, there's an unhinged quality that I feel like it's missing in certain sections like its bass and drum lines. There's so much on this record that outshines their debut, but the small elements that are missing or slightly weak keep it from being their paramount release.
However, it can't be understated how much this band was able to say about the state of the world and the struggles of so many in twelve short tracks. Rage Against the Machine obviously had a ton to say, and they say it in the most poetic way they were able to here on The Battle of Los Angeles. It's incredibly easy to have a whining, juvenile tone when attempting to proclaim these topics in a genre like Alternative/Rap Metal, so I'm glad the world got a band like Rage to show everyone how it's done. Sadly there will always be problems like they outline in this album and one of the only hopes I can have is that music like this can raise awareness and create more empathy in the world. Maybe someday new listeners can come and review this album in the future and not have to date their reviews to affirm that the world is indeed still a terrible place for those who are wrongfully deemed less worthy by those in power. Sadly, today is not the day that I can look out my window and say that the world has moved on or changed in the slightest.
Rage Against The Machine’s sophomore album “Evil Empire” was a bit of a disappointment for me. Their self-titled debut had been an impressive release from a band with a fresh, well-defined sound. A band that obviously had a lot to say & presented their message with an in-your-face delivery that was hard to ignore. Unfortunately the follow-up failed to capitalize on the solid platform they’d built for themselves. It was lacking a bit of bottom end in the production & the song-writing was pretty inconsistent. They’d tried a few things to add some variation to their sound but these experiments had some mixed results & the best parts of the album ended up being the tracks where they just concentrated on doing what they do best. Before giving it my first listen I was thinking to myself that RATM’s third album “The Battle of Los Angeles” could go two ways. They could either put out a safe album in the style of the debut or they could try some more variation & hope for some more successful results.
Shortly after pressing play it becomes obvious that the production is significantly better than that of “Evil Empire”. In fact “The Battle of Los Angeles” sounds very much like the debut. This gives the rhythm section a lot more clout & makes for a generally heavier experience. Secondly, the style of the song-writing sits very much within their comfort zone. There isn’t as much variety as there was on “Evil Empire”. The riffs & structures here are very familiar, Tom Morello is still taking his guitar “solos” to the weirdest places he can possibly come up with & Zack de la Rocha is spitting out his lyrics in his typical aggressive fashion. But this is not necessarily such a bad thing. If you liked the debut album then you should also get some enjoyment out of this one as they follow very similar paths.
If you look at the individual tracks on offer here you can’t see any obviously weaker songs. In fact I’d go so far as to say that this is Rage Against The Machine’s most consistent record. “Born Of A Broken Man” is clearly the high point of the album in my opinion. It’s a real monster of a track & is amongst the best couple of songs the band ever wrote for mine. “Calm Like A Bomb” is also a standout. The rest of the tracks are generally solid & engaging. They’re quite heavy & possess plenty of energy. It’s just that by the end of the record they’re all starting to sound a little samey & for this reason “The Battle Of Los Angeles” can feel a bit longer than it actually is. It definitely doesn’t have as many highlights as the debut album either.
I quite like this record & think it’s a pretty good comeback after the disappointment of “Evil Empire”. If you look at it on an individual track-by-track basis it’s actually not too far behind the debut album in terms of overall quality but the fact that it loses a bit of momentum late in the album due to a lack of variation causes me to rate it a little lower. Still… I’m much happier with RATM going with what they do best rather than throwing in outside influences that only end up diluting the aspects of their sound that make them great. It was probably a wise decision for them to leave on this note. Another similar release would definitely have been overkill.
I first crossed paths with RATM after catching the Freedom video on MTV and it's exposure of the injustices against Native Americans as personified in the heinous miscarriage of justice against Leonard Peltier (shit, some things never change...) Anyway the video had such an effect on my subconscious that when I saw this in my local CD store I grabbed it without thinking. I don't much like rap, apart from the odd album like Straight Outta Compton and It Takes a Nation of Millions so I've never given it much ear time and rap rock like the Red Hot Chilli Peppers leaves me cold, so this was a bit outside my comfort zone.
But, hell, this is one great record - angry and intense, but not in a misdirected "hit out at everyone" kind of way, but in an invigorating, energetic and focussed tirade against those who deserve it. I can't in all honesty say if I would dig this to the same degree without the political message, but I think the music is strong enough in it's own right to command respect. Testify, Calm Like a Bomb, Sleep Now in the Fire are all stone-cold classics as far as I'm concerned and the lyrical content elevates them even higher. This album is every bit as relevant today as when it was released over twenty years ago and that is a hell of a testament to it's passion and power.
The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same
It feels weird to talk about Rage Against The Machine in the modern day. For one, I was very young and impressionable when I first heard the band, and I was all for the "anti-authority" message found within their music. It's the kind of music that angst-filled teenagers would easily flock to as a safe method of releasing anger against their parents, as well as other systems, such as their school, bullies, and other family. Now, over twenty years removed from the release of The Battle of Los Angeles, my view of the world has changed. To keep it brief, I wondered if this album would still hold up.
So I decided to give it another spin. That turned into another, and another, and one more just for good measure. The Battle of Los Angeles is one of my favourite records of all time, and a gold standard when it comes to political commentary and how to do it right.
And while I do really enjoy the self-titled record, that album does feel like a angst-filled teen. This album is much different. It's more refined, both in its content and the music itself. And for themes that are not dissimilar to those found in hardcore punk, one might wonder how the cleaner production and tight knit lyrics would work.
From a production standpoint, these tunes sound superb. Every single song on this record has a definable hook from Tom Morello, a punchy as f*ck bass line, drums that are played with so much force, I start to wonder how many heads Brad broke in recording this. The overall sound feels dampened, but the quality of each members contribution is fully displayed with excellence. And Zack's vocal work is is great as well; the shouting lyrics are clear and precise, but they are not as ear piercing as they appear to be on previous records, specifically the self titled debut. For as violent as Zack can get on a tune like "Sleep Now In the Fire", the vocals are within a definable comfort level; his voice does not sound strained.
I think that the compositions are wonderful. I already discussed how each tune has an instantly recognizable hook from Tom Morello, but credit to Zack for also having some awesome, anthemic leads as well. For a funky record such as this, bass is key, and Tim's part is given more than enough deviance from the guitar parts to make both stand out from each other. It starts right out of the gate with "Testify", carries on with that killer riff on "Calm Like a Bomb", and is relentless the rest of way, through "Sleep Now In the Fire", "Voice of the Voiceless" and "Ashes In the Fall".
But I brought it up off the top and that's the lyrical content on this thing. I'll keep it brief so that I don't piss off too many people (and in this day in age, that might be pushing it). This album, more than any other RATM record, highlights the groups incessant activism towards socialism. They want to see the system crumble as systemic injustices happen all around them, but in their place, promoting their own authoritarian views. They would never admit to this explicitly, but "Voice of the Voiceless" is where you can clue in. The same phrase is used by radical left wing groups like antifa today.
Why is this important? Well in order to appreciate the music itself, you have to remember that this record was released in 1999, during the last years of Bill Clinton. The album in entitled The Battle of Los Angeles, a majority Democrat state today, that flipped with the election of Clinton in 1992. So this album is an indictment of unjust systems, and they hold nothing back. They go after everyone, and fair enough. It allows for this music to feel universal, as hard as that might be to believe. Because the anti-authority messages are so revolutionary, it makes our "liberal" politicians look weak in comparison. It's also music that stands the test of time; how appropriate given our current situation.
As a whole, I love this record. It's got the grittiness and anger that you expect from the D.I.Y. camp of hardcore punk, but refined to be presentable and sound phenomenal at the same time. This is the band at their "A" game and has stood the test of time.