Rating: 4/5RATM – when it comes to rock music, few acronyms held greater meaning for young fans concurrently trying to find ideological bearings in the moral wasteland of the post-Reagan era. For what band better captured – let alone condemned in such stark terms – the turbulence of the early ‘90s, House hypocrisy amid the “Contract with America,” our continued support of anti-democratic dictators abroad and the domestic economic boom that came even as seeds of income inequality were taking root? For every Reagan hater, conscious non-consumer, anti-imperialist and wannabe rock-rapper MC, Rage Against the Machine’s 1992 self-titled debut seemed to have a track to fight the power to. As the album’s subject matter is as excoriating today as then, either the band was highly prescient or times have changed little. Even the act of self-immolation captured in the iconic photo on the album cover is the kind of thing the world still sees too much of – 15 Buddhist clergy members in occupied Tibet have committed suicide that way between January 2011 and January 2012 alone.
Following that debut’s runaway success, RATM produced two more studio LPs of original material, each unfortunately lacking the power of its direct predecessor. Ultimately, this paralleled the band’s creep from the outskirts into the mainstream and then oblivion, brought on by the triple-platinum success of 1996’s Evil Empire and followed by a fittingly tongue in cheek contribution to the 1998 Godzilla remake soundtrack. By 2000, when bassist Tim Commerford scaled the stage scaffolding of the MTV Awards, their rebellious reputation had descended into embarrassing self-parody – if one wants to make a political statement, almost killing oneself at the MTV Awards ranks among perhaps the least effective. The gradual decline would be concretized by the time vocalist Zack de la Rocha unilaterally dissolved the band in October 2000. Guitarist Tom Morello, drummer Brad Wilk and Commerford would go on to form Audioslave with former Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell. (Its members cut adrift from the gritty, authentic sounds that first lent them all fame, Audioslave would release a laughable series of flaccid nu-metal records that warrant little mention here.)
That debut album album holds up remarkably well on a new 20th anniversary box set reissue. To this day, Commerford’s “Bombtrack” bass line remains incendiary. (The track’s title forecasts how aggro music would find a comfortable home on the iPods of servicemembers dropping payloads over foreign battlefields – think “Let the Bodies Hit the Floor” – or in the workout soundtracks of chickenhawks such as RATM fan Paul Ryan.) When it comes to basslines, however, “Killing in the Name” tops “Bombtrack” handily. And de la Rocha’s repeated lyric, “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” remains a stronger rejection of the status quo than anything the grunge era mustered. Cowbell accents and de la Rocha spitting, “massive militant poetry” like a Beastie Boy ensure “Take the Power Back” a certain timelessness, as well. The box set itself comes adorned with other goodies such as demos, live cuts and concert footage. Early versions of “Bullet in the Head” and “Know Your Enemy” invite comparisons to their studio cuts, De la Rocha’s vocals noticeably set deeper in the mix on the demos (“Clear the Lane,” “Darkness of Greed”) and Morello’s guitar less confrontational.
That said, Wilk’s spacious drumming on the record, fashionable at the time for heavier acts, leaves some of it feeling empty today. The unbridled anger on display, though pointedly different from the juvenile rages of RATM-influenced acts like Linkin Park, still bears a passing, unflattering resemblance. And 20 years later, the band’s heavy handed zealousness seems somewhat quaint, as revolutions – and their agents – don’t, in a dialectical sense, entirely age well. (Even Subcomandante Marcos’ fervor, it should be noted, has become a pacified grandfatherliness.) De la Rocha’s individual contributions fare better despite time’s ravages. While a bit sluggish at times, his spitting style, never shying from the profane proclamation (“Killing in the Name”) or the rough grammars of barrio rap (“Township Rebellion,” the “Mindset’s a Threat” demo), still sounds fresh and biting. The same can be said of Morello, at least when he isn’t telegraphing simple power chord riffs.
In recent interviews, Morello has downplayed the chances of a full RATM reunion (with de la Rocha still presumably the contrarian Morrissey to his Johnny Marr), despite successful reunion gigs through the late aughts. Going by the many conflicting rumors that have swirled since their original breakup, and the gulf spanning their last studio album and today, the likelihood of RATM reuniting grows dimmer each year. Perhaps things are best left that way. It’s unlikely anyone can recapture the power and urgency of Rage Against the Machine’s blistering self-titled record – even them.