Yer Metal is Olde: Rage Against the Machine – Evil Empire

1996 represented a challenging year for Rage Against the Machine. It was 4 years after their incendiary debut, Rage Against the Machine, had deftly combined metal and rap, and before nu metal was considered the leper of metal genres. There were already clear creative differences within the band, with front man Zack de la Rocha occasionally at odds with his band-mates. Whereas the songs for Rage had developed organically and spontaneously, the follow-up, Evil Empire, was proving to be a much more labored affair, taking over 2 years to write and perform. In addition, while Rage had been both a critical and commercial success, the hoped-for call to arms it aimed to inspire had simply not materialized. Teenagers were screaming “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” not as a rallying call against police brutality (which “Killing in the Name of” highlighted), but as an angsty vent of frustration against authority figures. Neo-liberalism, under a dopey Bill Clinton, was the order of the day, with author and historian Francis Fukuyama declaring that “History was over” and that the world was on a slow, but inexorable trajectory towards a destination where liberal democracy would rule, and trickle-down economics would uplift everybody. Rage Against the Machine saw the lie; Evil Empire was their riposte.

On its release, Evil Empire shot to the top of the charts, but it was initially considered a disappointment by fans and critics. While of the same DNA as Rage, Empire is more hip-hop heavy, with de la Rocha’s rapping playing a greater role. If Rage was metal masquerading as hip hop, Empire is hip hop masquerading as metal. This did not please everybody, especially those looking for more of the same as their debut. It has also led to a general perception that it is the weakest of their discography. Time has shown what a superficial assessment that is. Evil Empire was the logical next step for a band trying to follow up a landmark debut. It’s a leaner, meaner, and ultimately better album.

Evil Empire‘s great strength is how much more concise and focused it is than its predecessor. The long, meandering intros have all but been dispensed with, and only 2 tracks breach the 5 minute mark. This streamlined approach does wonders for the pacing: I usually only listen to the highlights of Rage but have no problem with Evil Empire in its entirety. Opener “People of the Sun” is indicative of this, getting straight to the point: Tom Morello’s restless, inventive guitar slips and slides above Tim Commerford’s funky bass. De la Rocha spits out some of the more incendiary lines in his arsenal, exhorting the Zapatistas to rise against the US-backed Mexican dictatorship. “Bulls on Parade” features one the weirdest and best guitar solos you’ll ever hear, while the band makes the most compelling use of a two note riff since Zep’s “Kashmir.” Throw in some disturbing imagery about “Rallying Round the Family… with a pocket full of shells” and you have a certified smash on your hands. The songs may not be as immediately iconic as on other albums, but they’re not far off.

The message on Evil Empire is also more focused. Whereas Rage relied on repetition and fairly blatant slogans (“Wake Up!”) and obvious metaphors (“Bullet in Your Head”) to advance the far-left ideology the band espoused, Evil Empire is more personal and, by Rage’s standards, subtle. De la Rocha raps about the plight of Mexican farmers (“People of the Sun”), the consequences of US military imperialism (“Bulls on Parade”), immigration, and the toxic effects of propaganda in the news sphere (“Vietnow”). He makes use of individual stories to emphasize his message, whether focusing on the unnamed immigrant seeking a better life (“Without a Face”) or people of color dealing with everyday racism (“Down Rodeo”). This intimate approach yields substantial rewards. It’s hard to hear the lyrics,
“Weapons, not food, not homes, not shoes/
Not need, just feed the war, cannibal animal”
Or
“The clockers born, starin’ at an empty plate/
Mama’s torn hands, cover her sunken face”
and not feel a degree of empathy for the downtrodden Rage are singing about. You don’t need to agree with their politics to accept that something was (and is) deeply wrong with the state of the world, and to feel a degree of anger at how many people are treated. The lyrics on Empire don’t lend themselves to stadium call-backs, but one suspects that was intentional.

Evil Empire is not a flawless record. Its structure is disjointed: the first half is definitely the more “metal,” while the second is hip-hop and funk based. This gives it an unbalanced feel, especially as the metal tracks are stronger. It roars out of the gate with three bangers (“People of the Sun,” “Bulls on Parade,” “Vietnow”), before settling into a steady, but less impressive, groove. “Wind Below” and “Roll Right,” in particular, while not bad, are both meandering numbers, lacking the urgency of the openers. Being placed together causes Evil Empire to lose momentum right when it should be kicking off to finish strongly. The production is fine, with a pleasing emphasis on the funky bass, but a lot of de la Rocha’s lyrics are buried in the mix, making them difficult to decipher without a lyrics sheet. Considering the extra emphasis the album has placed on its hip-hop elements, and the importance the band attaches to its “message,” this is a disappointing choice.

Nevertheless, Evil Empire is ultimately a more focused and more cohesive record than Rage Against the Machine. It lacks the vibrant youthfulness of its predecessor, but it makes up for this with better lyrics and a more concise, contained sound. In a decade when metal was fading from the mainstream, with popular music focused almost exclusively on boy bands, saccharine pop, and pretentious indie rock, Rage Against the Machine were howling about the mistreatment of the marginalized, the downtrodden, the forgotten. In 2021, that message, like the music, is more relevant than ever.

 

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