Be the Bomb You Throw
It’s hard to gaze at Audioslave and not see a little bit of Soundgarden mixed in with a whole bunch of Rage Against the Machine. Although the group has only been around for a few months, the comparison has already become a tired cliché. But with such a strong musical pedigree, it’s not easy to look past the members’ respective résumés. In fact, at first glance the component parts of the new group members look more like a salad than the cohesive unit of a stew. Truly, this is a testament to the tremendous impact that the previous bands had on the last decade of music. But in countless interviews, the group members, including former Ragers Against the Machine (Tom Morello, Tim Commerford, Brad Wilk) and previous Soundgardener (Chris Cornell), swear that they are now a brand new band that intends to be around for a very long time, and make many records. That band’s name is Audioslave.
Soundgarden was one of the most successful bands to come out of the Seattle scene in the early ‘90s for its jackhammer sound and bleak lyrics. But it’s difficult to listen to Audioslave and not think about the political messages that dominated all of Rage Against the Machine’s songs and actions. Maybe it’s because the former members of Rage outnumber Chris Cornell three to one. While the departed singer Zack de la Rocha was responsible for writing the lyrics and some of the musical activism, Rage guitarist Tom Morello always came off as the man behind the curtain. Morello got more mileage out of his Harvard Poly-Sci degree than most politicians. So now, with no disrespect to Chris Cornell intended, the question remains: just how political is the new stuff going to be with an existential pretty boy writing the lyrics? The answer is that it doesn’t matter.
Back in the gluttonous ‘90s, Rage’s listeners needed prodding to remind them how bad it really was in America, and in the world. With songs about corrupt police like “Bullet in the Head” and the even more corrupt media like “Testify”, Zack was always happy to point out what was (and still is) wrong with the world. But in 2003, we have plenty of reason to fight in the streets. So we really don’t need more message. We need the energy to keep going. That’s what Audioslave provides. Pure, electrifying power. When Tom Morello was asked in an L.A. Times interview how he felt about Cornell’s lack of political lyrics, as opposed to Zach De La Rocha’s, he said that “I’ve found other outlets for fighting the power.” In a way, Audioslave is giving its fans more credit. Rather than using the band as a platform to deliver a political message, Audioslave provides a means for the fans to achieve whatever end they choose. If you want to take the high energy from their potent, self-titled debut and inject it into the mosh pit, that’s fine. If you want to use it to bolster your march against The Gap’s exploitation of third world labor, so be it. Audioslave will not show you how to live, as they repeat over and over again on the second song of their debut album. They provide the gasoline. You light the match.
So is there anything on the album they’re stumping for? Interestingly enough, there’s a tremendous amount of religious imagery on the disc’s 14 songs. Cornell uses much of the space to explore the role of religious faith in our society. His writing takes place in between the time of man’s creation and his synthesis of an organized religion. So he isn’t shoving any scripture or holy book down the listener’s throat. Instead, he’s asking us to examine the way belief shaped the creation of our culture, and our attitudes towards life and death. The album’s other dominant theme is things burning and on fire. The cover reflects both of these subjects, with its giant metal-flame religious icon and tiny people wandering through a wasteland towards it. Cornell hurls these ideas at the listener at top velocity on the recording. He hasn’t lost his ability to scream and wail in perfect key and at top volume, which is nice. Commerford and Wilk’s pocket rhythm section is tight and never overexposes itself for the sake of the spotlight on this album. Meanwhile, Tom Morello does unholy things with his guitar that never sound indulgent, and make you wonder how this guy is still the most underrated guitarist in rock music. Credit Producer Rick Rubin for bringing it all together. The man, who founded Def Jam records with Russell Simmons 20 years ago, has, perhaps, the widest range of musical experience of any producer working today. Rubin has made brilliant records with the likes of Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Slayer, and Johnny Cash, so it’s hard to argue against the man’s taste. He’s actually the one who suggested that Morello, Commerford, and Wilk consider Chris Cornell in the wake of de la Rocha’s departure.
In a way, Chris Cornell’s decision to join the trio of instrumentalists was a resolution to return to his metallic musical roots. While Cornell played drums in several bands in the early ‘80s, he didn’t share with the world his amazing howl until he helped form Soundgarden in 1984. The group built a strong local following in the Seattle area, based on their heavy riffs and thrilling live performances. It probably wasn’t until 1991, when Soundgarden released Badmotorfinger at the same time that Nirvana released Nevermind and Pearl Jam released Ten, that they were officially moved from the metal bin to the grunge bin at the record store. There they stayed, until the group parted ways in 1997. This left Cornell free to explore his singer/songwriter side on the solo album Euphoria Morning. It’s not a bad piece of work if you enjoyed his contributions to Cameron Crowe’s Singles movie soundtrack. Lots of angst-ridden, existential poetry, thinly masked by the musical instruments playing behind him. After getting this out of his system, apparently the opportunity to play with Morello, Wilk, and Commerford was appealing.
While the former members of Rage Against the Machine didn’t take quite as much time off from recording and touring as Cornell did, the sound and message they’re now broadcasting is a greater departure from what they used to. Rage sprouted in the early ‘90s in Los Angeles—a place that might be argued to be the musical antithesis of the Seattle where Chris Cornell was born and raised. Originally made up of singer Zack de la Rocha, guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford, and drummer Brad Wilk, their sound was rap-metal before there was such a hybrid term. Rage Against the Machine lived up to its namesake, standing up to injustice everywhere in the corpulent ‘90s. In an economic boom time, when corporate greed was encircling the globe with its tentacles, Rage tried to keep things in check. While the group became more radical in its beliefs over the years, releasing three wildly successful albums of original work, rumors of the band’s demise seethed from the beginning. Constant infighting finally took its toll when lead singer Zack de la Rocha left in 2000 to pursue a solo career. While his first release has yet to materialize, the other members decided to move on with a new singer. As the story goes, the remaining three group members hedged on whether or not they should look for another rapper, or if they should keep the Rage name. In the end, Producer Rick Rubin suggested Chris Cornell as a good match for the instrumentalists’ style. He turned out to be right.
The album Audioslave begins with “Cochise”, a song whose title alludes to the nineteenth century rebel Apache leader who was never caught by the U.S. cavalry, and died a free man. The title seemingly marches lockstep with classic Rage doctrine—a Native-American revolutionary who fought the system and won. But much like the crop of Southwestern towns named after the fallen rebel, the song has little to do with the historic figure beyond the title. Instead, Morello’s rattlesnake guitar bounces around your speakers, and a brooding bass line foretells the avalanche to come. Immediately, Cornell hits you with words that could be Biblical. But they also get the fact that he’s not Zack out of the way right at the beginning: “I’m not a martyr / I’m not a prophet / And I won’t preach to you / But here’s a caution / You’d better understand / I won’t hold your hand”.
Other examples of jarringly obvious religious allusions include the lyrics to “Light My Way”, which repeatedly appeals to God asking: “To you I pray / Won’t you light my way?” It’s interesting that Morello’s infamous guitar Soul Power sounds like it’s on a yo-yo here, going back and forth, trying to decide. Producer Rubin uses the occasion to get jiggy with some Yes-era synth effects that work wonderfully. But if the description sounds like a boring day by a placid lake, rest assured that a blustery chorus will catapult you right back to the top of the mountain. There’s plenty of rage in this song.
“Set It Off” might be the best piece of work on the album. It begins like a Guns ‘n Roses anthem with a hollow, creaking scream (think “Welcome to the Jungle”), and then it moves on to combine religious imagery with a few expletives. It’s the only place on Audioslave where Cornell calls out Jesus by name. Although it feels like the moment takes place long before any organized religion established itself in this world. It’s neither a call to faith nor a rejection of the role it plays in society. If you like rock music, you’ll like this song.
The album is not without its Soundgarden influences either. Morello channels Kim Thayil’s crunchy chords in the song “Gasoline”, which sounds more than a little like “Rusty Cage”, off of Badmotorfinger. It’s hard to tell whether the group is toying with its listener, or if Morello just likes the hook. It doesn’t matter much, because the song is so forceful. Plug into this one when you run out of coffee and it will do the trick.
In interviews after the album was recorded, Cornell speaks about his struggle with substance abuse. While he’s never gone into great detail about the subject, he does allude to it in some of his songwriting. Most prominently in “Show Me How to Live”, where he repeatedly asks the question “Is this a cure, or is this the disease?” The song is also a tremendous example of Rubin’s touch on the boards. The driving rhythm and imaginative guitar are endlessly good. The tune even includes some synthesizer-generated computation going on in the background—something that we never would have heard in a Rage or Soundgarden song. He touches on the subject again in the album’s final cut, “The Last Remaining Light”. Here is a slow, plodding guitar light backed by Wilk and Commerford’s rock steady pocket rhythm section, reinforcing the song’s heavier theme. Morello even throws in a little jazz guitar at the end, just to show you that he can.
But addiction has not carved out Cornell’s soul, or ability to write, the way it has for some. “I Am the Highway” is breathtakingly mellow. The slower pace and lower volume allows us to hear what the singer has to say. When Audioslave performs this one in concert, it begins with Cornell alone with his acoustic guitar on a darkened stage. It isn’t until about halfway through that the lights come up, and the rest of the band join him for what is truly a commanding musical moment. This effect works just as well on record, particularly when you think about what the band, via Cornell, are trying to say. He is not “the rolling wheels, the vehicle in which you travel through life”. He is the path on which you tread. He is not “your autumn moon to light your way, he is the night”. This is the core of Audioslave’s message. Which is: they are not trying to give you a message. They are providing a method to do with as you choose. Unlike Rage, which was always willing to write the prescription for its listeners in the form of social commentary, and socially aware lyrics, Audioslave just provides the fuel. The gasoline, if you were listening earlier. They do something similar with “Getaway Car” at the end of the album. Once again Morello astounds with the sheer variety he can play so well—in this case blues. Is this the song that describes why the group asked Cornell to join? Maybe it describes why the Audioslave isn’t doing political music.
Somewhere near the same energy level is “Like a Stone”, a sweet, melodic song in which Cornell ruminates on death and Morello plays the guitar with what sounds like a drill. Once again the rhythm section is impeccable, and Rubin gets the tone just right. There’s no doubt that Audioslave isn’t Rage Against the Machine. It isn’t Soundgarden either. While it’s hard to imagine the silliness that led to the selection of their band’s moniker, it’s obvious that it was selected for no particular reason. There aren’t many music group names that more explicitly sum up a band’s purpose on earth than the name Rage Against the Machine. Perhaps the name Audioslave does the same thing, since their debut album is all about the music. The same thing can be said for the hackneyed song titles. When you listen to it, try to forget about what these people used to sound like when they played music with departed singers and musicians. In fact, forget about them entirely. This is really an album for the listener.