Masters of the Form: Rage Against the Machine (1992)

Rage Against the Machine
Rage Against the Machine

“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.