Adam Does Music – “Evil Empire” – Rage Against the Machine

I know music, like, totally know music and stuff. Sometimes I’ll write about it but not in a snobby, douchey way. I’m doing it way cooler. This is Adam Does Music…

Here is a legit blast from the past: an essay/review I wrote for Brightlife Records in 2013, completely unedited or updated. Enjoy!

The “sophomore slump” (or “second year slump” if you’re so inclined) is a rather fascinating concept. Clearly, or at least rationally speaking, there is no larger force in place that a musician, athlete, student or whomever needs to somehow elude to avoid falling into the slump’s grasp. No, rather, the idea comes from a first year (or album) passing all pre-established expectations for what a debut of that nature should look like. Presumably, overwhelming evidence suggests that a successful introduction is the exception, not the rule. So if one defies all preconceived prospects, achieving success beyond anyone’s wildest hopes, how does one possibly match, let alone exceed, the success and brilliance of that with their follow-up?

It’s easy to imagine these questions and concerns weren’t lost on the members of Rage Against the Machine in the years before their sophomore release, Evil Empire. RATM was, from the beginning, a different breed of rock band. The rap metal outfit seemed determined to use any potential fame as a platform for exposing the socio-political injustices occurring both domestic and abroad, while lambasting the ambivalent complacency of the population at large. The system was both irreconcilably broken and rigged, and drastic change was needed NOW. The happy-go-lucky façade which the “machine” had established would be torn down to divulge the cold, empty truth.

The combination of Zack de la Rocha’s growling vocals, Tom Morello’s indisputably innovative lead guitar, smoothly integrated bass of Tim Commerford, and the pounding, yet never ostentatious, drumming of Brad Wilk provided a musical weapon more potent than anyone could have imagined. Over three and a half years passed between the seminal self-titled debut of RATM and their follow-up, yet the power and breadth of their auditory arsenal had not dissipated one bit. Anticipation, both in the media and public at large, was sky-high for the band’s second studio release, and any fears that the rage had been mollified or assuaged by fame and fortune were immediately wiped away.

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But was the album, Evil Empire, actually any good from a musical standpoint? Well, of course it was; and if you’ve ever listened to it, yet still need to read this review for a critical endorsement of greatness on this all-time great record, well, alright: Evil Empire is, any way you slice it, one of the best second albums in music history. In addition to bringing all the vitriol towards corrupt institutions they brought in their debut, the music of Evil Empire is undeniably fantastic. With the long timeframe between albums, RATM seemed to fully grasp how best to utilize the political platform they possessed in order to project their message for as many ears to hear as possible. The radio-ready tracks of Evil Empire are by and large shorter and more blistering in their delivery, while seeming to both globalize and narrowly specify the gripes of the system felt by the band.

So let’s jump right ahead and go track-by-track to analyze the indignant brilliance that is Evil Empire:

1. People of the Sun – A perfect opener, with a chorus asserting, “This is for the people of the sun!” and the combat has begun. A looping, almost circular riff intertwines impeccably with the declaration that, “It’s coming back around again!” The battle for the world is upon us, and RATM has declared war.

2. Bulls on Parade – The modern rock radio staple provides a scathing takedown of the military-industrial complex in the U.S., revealing the harsh reality of it all: “Weapons, not food, not home, not shoes, not need; just feed the war cannibal animal.” An apt metaphor of societal leaders trouncing over the masses as, “Bulls on parade!” with a legendary wah-wah riff that has remained imprinted in popular culture.

3. Vietnow – A funky start-and-stop track that critiques the propaganda contrivance delivered by, specifically, right-wing conservatives and organized religion. “Fear is your only God,” and, “terror is the product ya push,” prompts the unbearably bleak question: “Is all the world jails and churches?”

4. Revolver – A stark, somewhat twisted call imploring abused and mistreated women to take harsh revenge on the men inflicting pain. Calm, almost soothing verses plunge into a vicious chorus that asks, “Don’t mothers make good fathers?” with shouts for the titular weapon that’ll allow women to take the power back.

5. Snakecharmer – A searing energy runs throughout this takedown of the American capitalistic system and the faux promise is presents. Steady distortion provides a musical allegory for the false hope preached in this country, pulling away the mask and demanding we, “vomit all ideals and serve…sleep and wake and serve.”

6. Tire Me – Allegedly written in celebration of Richard Nixon’s death (according to Wikipedia, whatever that’s worth), this anti-celebration of our nation’s celebrity culture obsession asserts the band’s weariness of it all: “Yeah, I see you in front of me…so get the f*ck from in front of me.” Guitar riffs that resemble a blaring megaphone gives the fast-paced song the feeling of a soap box lecture.

7. Down Rodeo – An attack on racial tensions and cultural stereotypes impact on the perpetual cycle of poverty and crime in inner-city, minority filled areas. “Can’t waste a day when the night brings a hearse,” accentuate the desperation emanating from those born into the worst areas of this country, and the hypocrisy of the system keeping wealth in a small number of hands: “We hungry but them belly full, the structure is set ya never change it with a ballot pull.”

8. Without a Face – The plight of the Zapatistas in Mexico was a worthy cause to champion for the band, as a riff reminiscent of an alarm rings out to begin the song alerting the world of their struggles. A chorus analogizes those fighting for independence as they, “Walk unseen past tha graves and tha gates,” and are reduced to being, “born without a face.” This wasn’t the first time they addressed the Zapatista revolution, and it wouldn’t be the last…

9. Wind Below – As the following song also directly calls attention to the cause. A creepy, echoing riff throughout this largely slowed down track evokes a horror film, along with lines like, “So here they come one by one them killers of the new frontier,” and the framing of the Zapatistas as victims in their own horror story is complete.

10. Roll Right – A scathing, amped up take on colonial imperialism and the enslavement of indigenous peoples. Denouncing settlers with, “Here comes the hands on the leashes,” natives are reduced to having to, “Roll right!” for, “Roll call!” The lasting impact of our ancestors alleged triumphs is brutally acknowledged, “For their lives and our lives are never settled.”

11. Year of tha Boomerang – A funky denigration of the power of the elite being imposed on the masses. The song (released two years before the album) is actually pretty standard fare within the band’s social agenda, referencing Franz Fanon’s examination of colonialism’s lasting impact and its dehumanizing effect. A great song regardless and an impeccable choice to end the album.

Seeing as I’ve written almost 1200 words touting the genius of Rage Against the Machine and Evil Empire, let’s give the last word to Tom Morello, who demonstrates (from an op-ed in Rolling Stone magazine last year in response to Republican VP candidate Paul Ryan calling RATM his favorite band during the campaign) that, even though it’s been over twenty years since uniting, the band will continue raging against the machine to their last, dying breath:

“Rage’s music affects people in different ways. Some tune out what the band stands for and concentrate on the moshing and throwing elbows in the pit. For others, Rage has changed their minds and their life…perhaps Paul Ryan was moshing when he should have been listening.”

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