The grey stillness engulfs the city street. The cold concrete consumes a chemically scented and vaguely visible trail. A plastic gasoline canister proudly stands alone, the only visible spectator and accomplice. Silence rages through the lush tension. A match. A spark. Aflame. A monk serenely sits amongst the ravaging flames, the wind’s influence puckering patterns of hot white flickers and black cascading ripples. Everything elapses slow and surreal. Look at him. Plumes of devilish desire envelop all but the right side of the monk’s face; his pain is replaced by a silent dignity. Look at him now. He sacrifices himself for what he believes in. He is slowly burning…look at him now. And now. Digest it. Consume him like the unrelenting inferno. Can you feel the heat against your face? Can you smell the gasoline and burning flesh? Can you imagine the devastating beauty of the lingering firestorm? Can you ignore this? It is difficult to disregard something so visually profound and disturbing. You want to look away but something paralyzes the eye. Something entices your curiosities. Who is he? Look at him. Look at him always. Look at him forever. The image burns itself into your psyche. Remember every detail, every emotion, every highlight and lowlight, every texture. Remember. It is not a typical album cover: it overwhelms the audience with layered subtleties, questions, and reactions. Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled album also portrays these themes lyrically and musically by utilizing the fringed boundaries between rap and rock; peace and violence; and the political and personal.
Rock Riffs and Rap Scratchin’
Genre is a loaded term. Fitting music into a rigid category ensures critical fallout. This is especially true when approaching Rage Against the Machine. Where do they fit? The simplest answer to formulate is everywhere and nowhere. Musically, they are a hybrid of Rap, Rock, Hip-Hop, Metal, and Funk. The most noticeable and successful integration of generic techniques is that of Rap and Rock. The theme that connects the two musical genres is the spirit of innovation. Tracing the emergence of both Rock and Rap music, the thriving and persisting sounds stem from an untraditional experimentation and manipulation of musical instrumentation. The materialization of remixes and scratching was the result of testing the capability of a record player while the most identified and memorable Rock riffs came from experimentation with amplifiers and foot pedals. Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin famously used a violin bow in order to create mystifying sounds with his electric guitar; Tom Morello’s style is a contemporary version of Page’s musical innovation and integration, using his hands as the raw material of uncharted sound. Morello’s guitar techniques developed from the need of duality. His role borders that of a DJ and lead guitarist, incorporating DJ scratching within the confines of his six-string electric guitar. Think Led Zeppelin’s inventive guitar meets Public Enemy’s sirens and background milieu; two of the biggest influences on music combined into one epic and unmatched sound. This match made in music heaven is strongly explored in the songs “Take it Back” and “Wake Up” where there is a constant interaction between heavy Rock power chords and the emulation of scratching. Distinctively, “Wake Up” interestingly uses the Rock staple, the “wha-wha” foot pedal, in conjunction with string scratching in order to audibly wed the two distinct styles into one fantastically remarkable sound.
The album’s final liner notes [in bold capital letters] read, “No samples, keyboards or synthesizers used in the making of this recording.” This assertion is almost essential as Morello’s solos defy traditional guitar sounds. Besides utilizing distortion and delay pedals, everything heard resonating throughout every Rage song is a unique guitar manipulation. This comment highlights the notion of a new sound made from original experimentation, therefore creating a new page of musical history while implicitly showing appreciation for the innovators of the past that inspired their eccentricity.
Lyrical Flow and Diversity
There is nothing worse than listening to an album void of audible diversity. Returning to safe and mainstream vocal sounds makes for an unexciting musical experience. Fortunately, the range and lyrical flow frequently morph into fresh and stimulating sounds based within emotionality and urgency. Once again audible difference is generated by the piecing together of both Rap and Rock elements. “Fistful of Steel” relies heavily upon the vocal rhythm generated by de la Rocha’s verbal delivery. The song contains sparse rhythmic sections consisting of harmonious and repetitive drum, bass, and guitar accompaniment. The emphasized importance of de la Rocha’s talents as an MC comes to the forefront. For the most part, lyrically, there is a lack of conventional rhyme; however, de la Rocha’s ability to differ his pace and stresses, produces a feeling of semi-regular metrical rhyme. The consistent change between spoken word dialogue, rhythmic delivery, and varying verbal paces lean toward of Rap’s rich and vibrant oral history. Similarly, the album’s single, “Killing in the Name Of” relies heavily upon a hybrid of Rock and Metal lyrical presentation while peppering intricate verbal tempo changes and strategically placed Rap and Hip-Hop inspired guitar riffs reminding the listener of their musical multiplicity. Cleverly balanced throughout the album, Rap and Rock elements become blurred and organic intermingling as one homogeneous product rather than a musical version of Frankenstein’s pieced together monster.
Desire for Peace and Evocation of Violence
Known for politically charged lyrics and implications, Rage maintains the essence of the “hippie” aesthetic with an edge. The edge emerges from the heaviness of the music. There is no escaping the pounding drums, hard hitting bass lines, and intrusive guitar riffs. While imploring f a need to restructure oppressive and alienating authorial powers, inciting the image of the hippie activist, there is a constant undertone of implied violence within the musicality. The aggressive edge surfaces throughout the album from Zack de la Rocha’s malicious “uhs” to the interruption of “balladesque” songs with raging anger and invasionary backbeats and screaming. “Township Rebellion” and “Freedom” encapsulate the binary between the call for peace and freedom as being attainable within the mode of violence and rebellion. “Township Rebellion” asserts “Our freedom or your life/I wish I could be peaceful” (12-13) suggesting that freedom is not the means of peaceful resilience; personal freedom comes by means of war. Although the band outwardly disagrees with arbitrary governmentally enforced wars, they [lyrically] support civil rebellion against established and oppressive institutions. Clear attacks, including “Take the Power Back” and “Know Your Enemy,” exhibit a theme of cynicism towards subjective legislative power. The lines, “What? The land of the free?/Whoever told you that is your enemy” (30-31) completely subvert the notion of “the free”, a peaceful notion, with the imposition of an untrustworthy enemy feeding unwarranted and biased propaganda; peace and violence become explicitly juxtaposed. The most effective lyrical verbalization of this ambivalence between personal freedom and hierarchical control is explicitly revealed at the end of “Know Your Enemy”:
Yes I know my enemies
They’re the teachers who taught me to fight me.
Ignorance, hypocrisy, brutality, the elite.
All of which are American dreams (47 – 52).
This passage specifically pits violence and peace within the same realm of existence. The first two lines suggest discordance and pertinence towards otherness and violence. The word “enemies” creates a binary between love and hate while “fight me” illuminates a battle both internal and external. These insinuations to violence and discordance are contrasted with the following three lines referring to various forms of oppression employed in order to construct the illusion of peace and freedom. The final line is repeated eight times, four of those times in a cappella thus insinuating the stripped down and contradictory emptiness of what is perceived to be the “American Dream.” This forces the audience to actively reflect upon the confines and hypocrisies entrenched within popular culture inciting a need for conscious awareness of problematic symbols and representations.
Personal and Political
Weaving personal narrative with the political undertones acts as a social commentary regarding authorial prevalence. “Settle for Nothing” centers around a void within a family structure due to an absent father figure. Constantly employed throughout the song is the narrative “I” until the final stanza:
If we don’t take action now,
We settle for nothing later.
We’ll settle for nothing now,
And we’ll settle for nothing later (49-52).
The communal pronoun “we” insinuates a change from the domestic authority to a societal rebellion against political authority. The absent father figure permeates the political world suggesting the absence of a trustworthy institutional authority. Both remain completely faceless throughout the song. It is suggested that authority figures are based within absence and therefore individuals must live outside of a restrictive forms of ambiguous government. The “balladesque” song starts with a soft and submissive tonality mimicking the non-threatening instrumentation. Quickly interrupted, the submissive voice becomes that of a dominant one as de la Rocha’s voice slowly escalates to a tormented yelling. The transience between the submissive and dominant are constantly explored; however, the narrative voice depletes authorial dependence and reaffirms the need to construct a reality based within personal authorial choice based within independence free from external forces. Settling no longer reveals itself as a suitable state; the passive subject of institutionalized history begins to spawn a new sense of history.
“Smart”, “riveting”, and “powerful” barely scratch the surface when describing the brilliance of this album. Without a doubt, it is a staple in any avid music fan’s collection, pleasing such a large and discerning audience of differing genres. Rating the album within a stringent numerical value seems to defeat the purpose of Rage’s themes of anti-conformity and negation of strict social constructions, so in the spirit of the content, the album receives five golden “wah-wah” pedals out of five raging string scratching solos. Each song on this album has the same effect as the burning monk: impact and memorability. Listen to the album. Listen to it again. And again. Internalize every detail. Listen to it always. Replay the sounds in your mind. Consume the words. Listen to it forever. Remember.