Masters of the Form: Rage Against the Machine 1996 - Evil Empire
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.
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.
"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.