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Wednesday, Dec 2, 2009
A case could be made that Sabbath is by far the most misunderstood and underrated band. Ever. (Indeed, I've already made that case. Now I'm going to make it again.)

I’m so proud of my Pops.


Last night, quite out of the blue (or, out of the black, as the case may be), he said he had to ask me a “technical question.”


I braced myself, prepared to disappoint him. A “technical” question had to mean he was going to ask about computers, and I would have to remind him that, despite working closely with them for almost two decades, I probably know less about the inner workings and mechanics of these things than the average ten year old.


To my considerable relief, it was a question about music.


To my considerable delight, it was a question about Black Sabbath.


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Wednesday, Nov 18, 2009
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.

“Yeah people come up.”
—Rage Against the Machine, “People of the Sun”


It’s an unlikely invitation from an unlikely source. 


In 1992, Rage Against the Machine had stormed onto the music scene with the finesse of a class five hurricane.  Their self-titled debut album played like a musical version of blunt head trauma, and displayed so much honest anger in its fusion of rap and metal that it clearly wasn’t the work of an average rock band.  Rage Against the Machine was the work of true Masters of the Form.  This mastery continued with the 1996 release of their amazing follow-up, Evil Empire


Throughout their debut, Rage Against the Machine grabbed listeners by the throat, refusing to let go, with music that was vital and stirring, but rarely inviting.  Often, the lesson the band was trying to teach was lost in the midst of the bludgeoning volume they used to ensure it would be heard.  By 1996, people were already listening, and in its new volume of lessons, the band displayed how much they themselves had learned.  The opening notes of Evil Empire’s first track, “People of the Sun”, were easily the most subtle the band had ever recorded.  Rage Against the Machine had chased listeners down; Evil Empire invited them in to learn about things like the Mexican Zapatista Movement and “face the funk now blastin’ out ya’ speaker…”.  It was an easy invitation to accept.


“Turn on tha radio, nah fuck it turn it off…”
—Rage Against the Machine, “Vietnow”


Once you accepted the album’s initial invitation, it was difficult to turn Evil Empire off.  The album is an improvement over the group’s debut in virtually every respect.  The songs are more tightly structured, each one rooted just as firmly in hip-hop as heavy metal, each finding an explosive groove and sticking to it like audio napalm.  The rhymes are more compact, and Zach de la Rocha never sounds as though he’s trying feverishly to squeeze in more words than the songs have room for. More than anything, though, Evil Empire is the first great “rap-metal” album, even more so than its predecessor, because it is a much better hip-hop album than Rage Against the Machine.


Evil Empire sounds forceful without ever sounding forced.  Zach de la Rocha is a vastly improved MC, an angry, booming-voiced rapper rather than a metal screamer trying to rap.  Tom Morello is a far more musical DJ, routinely transforming his guitar into a six-stringed turntable that scratches as often as it solos.  In fact, the “Guilty Parties”, as the band is once again credited in the album’s liner notes, perform explosive hip-hop throughout, and that’s what sets Rage apart from the bands that tried to follow in their “rap-metal” footsteps, and Evil Empire apart from the albums that such bands released.  At their core, Rage Against the Machine are a hip-hop band playing metal, not a metal band fronted by a rapper that has somebody scratch a record a couple of times on each track.  Even a quick listen to Evil Empire reveals a legit MC, a fantastic DJ (who was aware that if you need to scratch a record on a metallic song, you should figure out a way to play it on guitar), and a tight, funky rhythm section—the foundation of all good hip-hop.  And, of course, it brought the Rage.  After all, Evil Empire was more than an album, it was an invitation to . . .


“Rally round tha’ family with a pocket full of shells.”
– Rage Against the Machine, “Bulls on Parade”


“Bulls on Parade” is a snarling beast of a rap song, coaxing listeners to slither back and forth with the rhythm that snakes its way through the verses, as it criticizes America for having a greater love for the military than education. “Down Rodeo” is a scathing indictment of racial and class politics that boldly proclaims, “So now I’m rolling down Rodeo with a shotgun / These people ain’t seen a brown skin man since their grandparents bought one”, over some of the most infectious riffs the album offers, while Morello’s guitar whistles like rapidly fired shots.  “Vietnow” is blatant finger-pointing at the fear mongering of right-wing radio.  de la Rocha raps, “Well I’m a truth addict, oh shit I gotta head rush”.  “Rush”?  Limbaugh, perhaps?  The audio texture continues in “Roll Right”, which uses volume as an additional instrument and displays more than a little irony when the album’s loudest scream bellows, “Now we’re alright, we’re all calm”.


“And now it’s upon you.”
– Rage Against the Machine, “Year of tha Boomerang”


Evil Empire is a masterwork that challenges its listeners to act upon what they hear—words that are just as topical today as they were in 1996, over music that is so far beyond what is being released today it sounds as though it hasn’t even been written yet.  And Rage Against the Machine?  They were Masters of the Form who conquered the Evil Empire and then charged head first into The Battle of Los Angeles.


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Friday, Nov 6, 2009
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.

“Anger is a gift.”
—Rage Against the Machine, “Freedom”


Anger was a pretty standard component of popular music by 1992.  Grunge and gangsta rap had a stranglehold on both radio and MTV (where the “M” still stood for “music”), and words like “nihilism” and “violent” were musical buzzwords.  It seemed that anybody who could write a riff or sample a George Clinton song was pissed off.  And then, in the midst of all the enraged sentiments crashing through the airwaves came a group that gift wrapped anger with a barbed wire bow.  Anger was more than just an emotion for them.  It was more than a gift.  For Rage Against the Machine, anger was an art form, and with the release of their self-titled debut they proved that they were Masters of the Form.


Rage Against the Machine wasn’t a band, they were predators.  As they credited themselves in the liner notes of Rage Against the Machine, they were “Guilty Parties” rather than musicians; pure audio aggression, a walking encyclopedia of violent electricity the likes of which rock and roll had never seen.  There had been plenty of anger in rock and roll before, but rarely had it been so pure.  Being the guilty parties made Rage Against the Machine more than just an album.  It was a weapon, a sledgehammer; a blunt instrument of political protest that assaulted listeners, making any working speaker an accomplice, with an experience that was so sudden, so immediate that the reaction to it was physical, as though it had been added directly to the world’s drip feed.


“...like fluid in your veins”
—Rage Against the Machine, “Fistful of Steel”


It’s an album that chases its listeners.  Rage Against the Machine sneaks up on you, like a prowler weaving through the well shot shadows of a ‘70s movie.  “Bombtrack” rolls in on a spiral of guitar and bass that refuse to make their intentions plain as they gradually crescendo until, 25 seconds in, the whole track finally explodes in an act of musical battery.  It’s a blow to the back of the head, an unsuspected and relentless attack that doesn’t let up for the entire album, “Hardline, hardline, after hardline”.  Rage Against the Machine is an album devoid of any truly quiet moments.  “Settle for Nothing” begins in a muted fashion as Zack de la Rocha relays the story of a boy without a father, but the entire song is drowned in de la Rocha’s blood curdling screams as the boy is initiated into a local gang.  “Fistful of Steel” intrigues the ear with the inventiveness of Tom Morello’s guitar as it wails through the verses—part banshee, part siren, drawing you closer, until the inevitable punishing thump of the chorus.  Every track was an assault.  Every track was a…


“Fist in the air in the land of hypocrisy”
—Rage Against the Machine, “Wake Up”


Rage Against The Machine was a line in the sand that separated a deceived “us” from a perceived “them”, and it was defiantly loud because, as de la Rocha points out in “Township Rebellion”, there’s no point in standing on a silent platform when you can fight the war, whatever war needs to be fought.  The enemies on Rage Against the Machine are so numerous—the Klu Klux Klan, Eurocentric school systems, lying teachers, media propagandists, the class system—and words like “rage” and “bullet” riddle the lyrics with such frequency, that it’s difficult to keep track of where the anger is being aimed.  This frequent shifting of targets made it difficult to “Know Your Enemy”, which itself is a blistering track about teachers who try to get students to conform to society and do what they’re told.


“Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!”
—Rage Against the Machine, “Killing in the Name”


 


In the end, however, none of this confusion matters.  The incendiary performance of the material, as incendiary as the monk burning himself in protest on the album’s cover, makes such confusion immaterial.  The barrage is all that matters, the fierceness of it; the speed with which it hits listeners and leaves them gasping for air that won’t return to them until the album’s conclusion.  Rage Against the Machine is a masterpiece of attitude.  Young attitude.  Righteously belligerent attitude that feels the need to growl “Bam! Here’s the plan, motherfuck Uncle Sam, step back I know who I am”.


Rage Against the Machine was an excessive debut, and then?  Well, then the band focused its considerable energies on the task of conquering an Evil Empire.


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Tuesday, Oct 20, 2009
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.

It sounds murky; swampy.  It sounds as though the guitars are being played through your next door neighbor’s speakers while you listen to it in your living room.  It sounds as though the vocals are being growled from underwater.  It sounds muffled.  It sounds well worn; lived in.  Above all else though, Exile on Main St. sounds great.


With the release of Exile on Main St., the Rolling Stones capped off perhaps the most impressive streak in rock and roll history.  Over the course of five years they had transformed themselves from another successful British rock band into masters of the form.  The transformation had begun with the simplicity of 1968’s Beggar’s Banquet, continued with the authenticity of 1969’s Let It Bleed, and eventually grew into the audacious grandeur of 1971’s Sticky Fingers


Sticky Fingers was a landmark album, the band’s best, and it had changed rock and roll forever.  Sticky Fingers made the Rolling Stones a different kind of “big” than the world had ever seen; the kind of “big” that every other successful rock group is still compared to.  After all, Sticky Fingers was so big it bulged from behind the crotch of an overstuffed pair of jeans.  When it came time to record its follow up in 1972, the band did the only thing they could do, the only thing anybody can do once their zipper has been pulled down.  They let it all hang out.


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Wednesday, Oct 14, 2009
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.

One tongue. One set of lips. One titanic album, and the Rolling Stones had changed the course of rock and roll forever. Again.


When the Rolling Stones released Sticky Fingers in 1971 they had already surpassed the expectations of most rock and roll bands. They had proven themselves to be masters of the form with the release of 1968’s Beggar’s Banquet and its 1969 follow up Let It Bleed, the first two in a series of what could quite possibly be the four best successive rock albums released by any band in history. The two superlative discs were musical dictionaries that defined the concept of rock and roll for generations of aspiring musicians. In 1971, the Stones published a new dictionary called Sticky Fingers which defined the concept of rock and roll super stardom. Beggar’s Banquet was a lesson of simplicity, Let It Bleed was a lesson in authenticity and Sticky Fingers was a lesson in audacity.


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