Some artists are more than merely great. There are some artists that for a period of years, a period that is finite, consistently produced music that, it can be argued, far exceeded the work of their peers. For that brief period of time they were definitely Masters of the Form.
“This is the new sound; just like the old sound.”
—Rage Against the Machine, “Ashes in the Fall”
It’s one of rock’s most apt paradoxes.
By 1999 Rage Against the Machine held a singular place in the rock and roll landscape. They had suggested a new genre, rap-metal, with their self-titled 1992 debut, and given the genre legitimacy with their 1996 follow up Evil Empire. Both were vivid, visceral works that made Rage Against the Machine Masters of the Form.
The Battle of Los Angeles, which would prove to be the band’s last album of original material, was another step forward displaying a musical focus and strength of songwriting absent from their debut and only hinted at on Evil Empire. The album itself is a musical paradox, a work of sonic maturity burning with youthful fire that favors the force of textured subtlety over mere blunt force. The Battle of Los Angeles is an album of revolutionary new music that leaps forward while pointing back towards the band’s previous work, and upon its release it was a new sound that sounded just like the old.
“With precision you feed me”
—Rage Against the Machine, “Testify”
Rage Against the Machine and Evil Empire had both sounded unplanned, like works of musical spontaneity—the first of anger and the second of invention. There is nothing spontaneous about The Battle of Los Angeles, it is a measured masterpiece, a collection of songs that sound deliberately plotted and precisely performed without ever feeling deliberate or stale. The entire album still feels spontaneous because it continually yields unique sounds for rabid Rage fans to devour. Drummer Brad Wilk and bassist Tim Commerford play like pistons in an engine of fury. The album bristles with rhythm that is excessively heavy, increasingly funky and incredibly supportive of Tom Morello’s musical experimentation. Morello is in masterful form throughout, and much of the album’s entertainment value stems from how he coaxes new sounds from his guitar and effects pedals.
Rage Against the Machine chased listeners through random speakers before violently attacking, but The Battle of Los Angeles puts listeners at the opposite end of the struggle. “Testify” opens with a swirling wall of guitars that listeners fight through in order to get to the song’s riff and the wall continues to swirl through each of the verses before giving way to the riff again when the chorus hits. “Calm Like a Bomb” is nearly consumed by the high pitched clean tone that weaves its way throughout the excessive crunch of the rhythm, like a fuse’s lit flame that inches its way closer to the inevitable explosion. Morello is more DJ than guitarist on “Mic Check” and “Sleep Now in the Fire”, which find him treating his guitar like turntables and scratching the solos, and part blues singer as he delivers an amazing “harmonica” solo on “Guerilla Radio”.
“Whatcha say, whatcha say, whatcha say what!”
—Rage Against the Machine, “Calm Like a Bomb”
If The Battle of Los Angeles has a flaw it lies in its lyrical content. Zack de la Rocha had clearly grown as an MC from Rage Against the Machine to Evil Empire and that growth continues on The Battle of Los Angeles, but as a lyricist it can be argued that he gives the average listener, even an incredibly intelligent listener, too much to handle. He is incredibly verbose and he seems to go out of his way to point out every social injustice that angers him. So, as on the group’s first two albums, while it is abundantly clear that he is angry, it is just a bit difficult to keep track of all the things he’s angry about. However, his vocal performances on The Battle of Los Angeles are easily his best out of all three of the band’s releases. De la Rocha does more than simply scream as proof that he is impassioned. He whispers and growls. He utilizes volume as a vocal instrument on “Born As Ghosts”, “Maria”, and “Voice of the Voiceless”. More than anything though, his passion is so accessibly packaged that it becomes far more intoxicating than his anger. It’s invigorating to hear him take a stand even if you’re unsure exactly where he stands.
“I’m deep inside your children”
—Rage Against the Machine, “Sleep Now in the Fire”
The Battle of Los Angeles is angry, inventive, and exhilarating to listen to and it is a fitting final chapter for Rage Against the Machine. The band reintroduced anger to rock and roll, and in doing so, they connected deeply with teenagers who were angry and in need of music that would reflect that. Rage did more than connect; they penetrated the soul like a tattoo and became permanent. They were true Masters of the Form that roared with passion and prompted an entire generation of teenagers to do so as well.