Essential Records: 'Rage Against The Machine'

Posted by Amoebite, February 25, 2015 11:15am | Post a Comment

Essential Records Rage Against the Machine

With the release of Nirvana's Nevermind (Geffen), Pearl Jam's Ten (Epic) and Red Hot Chili Peppers' Blood Sugar Sex Magik (Warner Bros), Alternative Rock dominated the early '90s mainstream. Touted as the voice of a generation, Kurt Cobain was the poster boy for grunge, leading the way with chart-topping, angst-filled hits. For perspective, Los Angeles was dealing with its own levels of angst and anarchy with the '92 riots which were spawned in the wake of the Rodney King beating. With the City of Angels literally on fire, President Bush had to call in the U.S. Guard for help. Compton rap group N.W.A. was ending its terror on the music industry, but not after prompting strict Parental Advisory guidelines on CD packaging for explicit content and drawing scrutiny from the FBI. With emotions on high and tension building in the streets, the stage was set and no one could have ever predicted the sonic tsunami that was about to shake up the music scene.  

Essential Records

Taking their name from a song written by frontman Zack de la Rocha (while with his previous group Inside Out), Rage Against The Machine produced a 12 song demo cassette. The tape was self-released and made available at shows for $5. The band's buzz quickly erupted like a molotov cocktail and with just a handful of live performances, Rage were being persued by several major record labels. Ultimately signing with Epic, the band's debut album, Rage Against The Machine, was released on November 3, 1992. On the strength of the lead single, "Killing In The Name," the album hit #1 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart and #45 on the Billboard 200 chart. "Killing In The Name" received heavy radio play with just 8 lines of repeated lyrics, including the explicit, "Fuck you I won't do what you tell me" repeated 16 times. In line with the aesthetic and social message of RATM, the song alludes to the idea that police brutality is closely associated with the deep-rooted racism in the United States. It's safe to say that none of the grunge bands of the time were singing songs like this.

Essential Records Rage Against the Machine

Rage Against the Machine

For the cover art, the band used the jarring photo of Buddhist monk Tha­ch Quang's self-immolation protesting the persecution of Buddists by the South Vietnamese government in 1963. The band was sending a clear message to their listeners (whether they knew it or not) and to the world. Some may have easily dismissed the move as an attempt to gain attention through shock value, but to others the cover silently served as a message of solidarity. In my freshmen year of high school (1995 - three years after the release) a friend gave me a copy of Rage Against The Machine on cassette. Aside from hearing the single on radio, I had no idea what they were about. I remember looking at the cover and not really understanding what I was seeing. I had no clue. I had never heard of Tha­ch Quang and the issues surrounding the Buddhists in South Vietnam. This was the first time I was learning something from an album cover. So in that regard, the cover art was doing its job. Political or not, the image of the burning man embodied the intense, aggressive, angst-driven music that was on the album. And as most record collectors would say, you can usually tell a great album from its cover art.

The second single off the album, "Bullet In The Head," was a jab at the government, calling out its use of propagnda in the media with lines like, "believin' all the lies that they're tellin' ya/buyin' all the products that they're sellin' ya/they say jump and ya say how high/ya brain dead ya gotta fuckin' bullet in ya head." Further showcasing the band's chemistry and ability to create cohesive material, the song was transferred from the original demo tape fully intact and used on the debut release. The song also served as an introduction to Tom Morello's innovative guitar style where we hear him utilizing a DigiTech whammy pitch shifter to create sounds that mimic triggered samples. Morello weaves heavy riffs in and out of the song allowing for some serious dynamics. "Bullet In The Head" is one of the best examples of why Rage Against The Machine are praised for their unmatched fusion of rock and rap. As Morello's experimental style developed (you can literally hear his development on subsequent albums) he began to manipulate his guitar sound to replicate that of what a DJ might do. My mind was blown when I first learned that all sounds were coming from the guitar and not from a sample.

On the song "Know Your Enemy," Morello uses the simple trick of going back and forth between his guitar's pickups (one is turned on and one is turned off) by moving the toggle switch up and down. The result is a really cool effect that sounds like a classic '70s synthesizer. At the time, no one was really doing anything like that and Morello's creative approach to the electric guitar made him a true innovator. I remember many of my friends modifying their guitars by adding a toggle switch to try to replicate that sound.  

As a budding musician and developing songwriter, RATM quickly became a major influence. I was your typical music fantatic and I would comb through liner notes to read writer credits, producer credits, thank yous, lyrics, etc. I remember sitting in my room with a pen and pad, literally taking notes while reading Zack de la Rocha's lyrics. Although the music came through loud and clear, hitting me like a ton of bricks, the themes and messages of the songs weren't easily deciphered. I remember jotting down words I didn't know and then looking them up in the dictionary. For example, the lyric in the song "Know Your Enemy" was one I definitely had to look into. "Compromise, conformity, assimilation, submission, ignorance, hypocrisy, Rage Against the Machinebrutality, the elite, all of which are American dreams..." None of the books I was reading in my LAUSD public school history class were saying anything about assimilation and brutality. It became more like studying homework, except this was a lot more fun. As I started to mature and develop my own ideology as a teen, the music of Rage Against The Machine really began to resonate with me.

From start to finish, Rage Against The Machine unleashes a wrath of unforgettable songs full of emotionally charged rhymes and a fury of heavy metal guitar riffs. The foundation of such intense dynamic songs like "Wake Up" and "Settle For Nothing" are possible in part because of the strong chemistry between bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk. Together the two create a very tight backdrop allowing Morello and de la Rocha to shine. When stripped down to the basic tracks, it's clear Tim and Brad are a fantastic rock and roll rhythm section. Producer Garth Richardson does a great job of making sure the drum sounds are big and on par with any other major label release of the time. Brad Wilk never gets mentioned on any "best drummer" lists, but his playing on Rage Against The Machine cannot be understated. Same goes for Tim Commerford's bass playing, although subsequent albums make a strong case that Commerford has a unique style all his own. Much like Morello, Commerford utilizes various effects pedals and secret techniques to get desired tones and bass sounds. 

Rage Against the Machine 20th AnniversaryTo celebrate the 4x platinum-selling album's 20th anniversary in 2012, Epic gave Rage Against The Machine the remaster treatment complete with stellar packaging. Rage Against The Machine XX [20th Anniversary Special Edition] comes with the original demo recordings, including tracks that did not make the final album. Also included is a 40-page booklet with liner notes by the legendary Chuck D. of rap group Public Enemy, a live DVD and a double-sided poster. A definite must have for any RATM fan. 

Rage Against The Machine is arguably the most successful sociopolitical band of all time. Period. There's no debating RATM's impact and presence in rock and roll history. Their seamless fusion of punk, hip hop, and thrash was unprecedented, sparking what many music critics called the "nu-metal" movement. Their leftest views and anti-establishment rants fed headlines and fueled adrenaline to adoring fans in every mosh pit. Rage Against The Machine is essential to my record collection because it taught me how powerful music can be. A band can have a clear message and take a stance on worldly issues while not compromising the integrity and quality of the music. Twenty three years later, Rage Against The Machine still holds up.

- by Ray Ricky Rivera



Relevant Tags

Rage Against The Machine (8), Essential Records (35), Nirvana (35), Pearl Jam (13), Red Hot Chili Peppers (12), Zack De La Rocha (1), Tom Morello (5), Tim Commerford (1), Brad Wilk (1)