Twenty years on from Evil Empire, fear-mongering is as popular as ever.
How is it possible that Rage Against the Machine’s creative output came and went during one of the most peaceful decades in modern American history? Formed in 1991, RATM rose up in the same year that the Soviet Union fell, the body of the Cold War still warm. They disbanded in 2000, a year prior to the terrorist attacks and subsequent two-headed war that carved as deep a dividing line in American foreign policy as anything since Vietnam, if not World War II. Due to some strange twist of fate, instead of churning out anthems as the military-industrial complex chuffed along in the 2000s and the thermometer threatened to burst on the political bullshit-meter, RATM released every one of their albums during an era when the greatest national scandal hinged on the President getting a blowjob.
Imagine the revolutionary fodder Zack de la Rocha and co. could have derived from the Bush era’s militaristic dick-swinging, from the Patriot Act, waterboarding and phantom weapons of mass destruction. Instead of the self-immolating Vietnamese monk on the cover of their self-titled debut, we could’ve seen an album emblazoned with a cloaked torture victim at Abu Ghraib. Then again, RATM already had decades of injustice to work with, and just because everything was mostly hunky-dory stateside in the ‘90s doesn’t mean our global footprint wasn’t heavy in its heel.
Meanwhile, peace abroad didn’t mean justice at home. The SoCal band’s self-titled debut vaulted them to prominence in 1992 (the same year as the L.A. riots), earning them a spot at 1993’s Lollapalooza. Their low-end fueled hard rock approach coupled with de la Rocha’s snarling delivery led Anthrax’s Scott Ian to proclaim that RATM invented “rap metal.” But despite their innovation and rising popularity, the band waited four years to release a sophomore album. Less than a decade before the “Axis of Evil” became a term bandied about by hawkish elites, RATM culled their second album’s title from a similar propagandist catchphrase. Named after Reagan’s term for the Soviet Union (which de la Rocha asserted could also be as easily applied to the United States), Evil Empire dropped in 1996 and would soar to the top of the Billboard charts.
Between their first two albums, RATM did offer a stopgap by releasing lead single “Year of tha Boomerang” in late 1994. Tucked away in the final spot, “Boomerang” has become one of the more easily skippable tracks on Evil Empire in subsequent years, but hinging on the theme of minority representation, this single references concentration camps and dogmas that enslave in an alternative rock era still dominated by overdoses and angsty flannel. It’s Evil Empire’s front end that really made it into the heavy rotation. The album’s most full-throttled track, “Bulls on Parade” remains one of the finest songs that RATM has ever recorded. Notable for guitarist Tom Morello’s unique guitar solo (which sounds like turntable scratching) and amply-tattooed bassist Tim Commerford’s distinctive bass work, “Bulls on Parade” was internationally premiered on “SNL.” Scheduled to be the first of two songs by RATM, their hanging of upside-down American flags from their amps drew Pope-photo-tearing levels of ire from Lorne Michaels, who booted their second song.
Written about the Zapatista revolution in southern Mexico, “People of the Sun” also references an evil Spanish empire destroying the Aztecs, and it serves as another of the albums’ outright highlights that persists in popularity to this day. “Tire Me,” now considered a lesser song on the album (and perhaps an example of one of the more ‘90s-ish sounding tracks on an album that still almost uniformly holds up 20 years later), actually won RATM a Grammy for Best Metal Performance. Morello’s guitar eclipses Commerford’s bass more here than anywhere else, and the thrashier elements of “Tire Me” make it fit far more snugly into the metal genre. Its Jackie Onassis sunglasses reference may feel dated, but de la Rocha’s shrieking refrain of “We’re already dead!” gives the track enough vitality in the present day to keep it from completely becoming a vestige of the ‘90s.
The jittery “Vietnow” pushes back against the scourge of fear-mongering that still remains so rampant on rightwing radio and has bled into all manner of other media, and drummer Brad Wilk absolutely dominates the skins. As de la Rocha shouts “Fear is your only god!,” he’s speaking to a societal ill that metastasized far beyond the decade in which the song was written. “Revolver” relies on a heady contrasting blend of simmer and boil, and “Snakecharmer” acts as the perfect follow-up, erupting into a visceral tirade. Meanwhile, “Down Rodeo” takes on class warfare, its violent imagery perhaps a bit dated now that mass shootings have become such an unfortunate thread of the American fabric.
Though 1999’s The Battle for Los Angeles would deliver just as many essential RATM anthems, Evil Empire edged it out as the band’s bestselling album of all time, going triple platinum. Months after temporarily shutting down the New York Stock Exchange during a Michael Moore-directed filming of a music video for “Sleep Now in the Fire,” RATM broke up just as America was about to go crazy. In October of 2000, just days before the disputed Bush/Gore presidential election, de la Rocha announced he was leaving the band. Cover album Renegades was released after his departure. Bush assumed office despite losing the popular vote. 9/11 happened. We invaded Iraq for some reason. The de la Rocha-less RATM re-formed with Chris Cornell as Audioslave and released some toothless albums. In 2007, de la Rocha was back and RATM resurrected for a four-year stint that included another appearance at Lollapalooza, though no new albums were born.
Twenty years on from Evil Empire, fear-mongering is as popular as ever. There’s a reality show star/presidential candidate who feeds solely off it. America is the land of $1.5 trillion jets we can’t use. Minorities, immigrants and the poor are cast as villains by the powerful. But despite the persistence of our society’s darkest tendencies, decades-old awareness wrought by talented ragers like de la Rocha have provided us with the hope that there may yet be a ghost in the machine.