There’s an irony to the 20th anniversary edition of Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled debut, dubbed XX, right from the get-go. It seems odd for a band whose entire sonic repertoire and public image is based around system-upending acts of social protest—a fact driven home by the self-immolation shot on the cover of Rage Against the Machine—to give in to one of the music industry’s most well-known money grabs: the deluxe edition repackaging. The irony becomes even stronger when one considers that one of the likely forces contributing to this reissue, aside from the number of years it has been since the debut’s original release, was RATM’s free concert in London after a successful public attempt to prevent The X Factor‘s latest product from dominating the charts on Christmas week. With XX‘s November 27th release, it comes right around Christmas time, undoubtedly a perfect gift for the heavy metal or politically minded relative. The forces of consumerism appear to have taken over even the most anti-establishment of bands: could this be just another perfunctory reissue meant to stuff some music industry fat cat’s wallet?
Now, it is true that some records are deserving of a grand re-release, especially when a respected LP either goes out of print or was given a poor master initially. The year 2012 has already seen several such reissues: on the tastefully spare end is the vinyl reissue of Sleep’s Dopesmoker, and on the extravagant end is the Immersion edition of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. In each case, the reissue met several different criteria: one, redundancy with past editions is avoided; two, the sound quality of the music is significantly improved; three, the art direction is of the highest quality; and four, the reissue truly elevates the album in question and makes it feel even more definitive. Though there are any number of criteria people might use in such evaluations, I’ve found these four to form an even-handed way to approach an issue that tends to provoke a “well, who cares?” reaction. Since these reissues, however redundant they might be in some cases, are often used as “gift editions” for collectors, many won’t care if the hefty price tag that accompanies deluxe editions actually provides a better listening experience. After all, the knick-knacks and improved artwork can be pretty cool.
These four criteria are not just important in examining the XX box set not just because it is a reissue; it’s also important given the incendiary politics that have come to define RATM. Of course, all art springs from a political context—to suggest otherwise is to deny the many sociopolitical forces that influence all people, artists included—but RATM are the protest band of the ’90’s. The photo of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk self-immolating on the cover of their debut is an obvious choice as a statement of intent. Since the release of Rage Against the Machine in 1992, protests across the globe have sprouted, risen, succeeded, and failed (the Arab Spring in 2011 being a powerful example), and as far as soundtracks to the oppressed go, it’s essential listening. All the song titles on the album—”Take the Power Back,” “Settle for Nothing,” “Freedom,” and “Wake Up”—have a universality that easily bridges 1992 to 2012. This strength of Rage Against the Machine would have been true even if it had not gotten the XX treatment. But now that XX has been released, we are given a chance to look back on this firebrand classic.
Looking to the four aforementioned criteria, XX meets most of them well enough, but stumbles on a crucial one. Where this issue finds its best success in art direction, the third criterion. Though the box set opts for an unoriginal black-grey-white palette, the result is striking, especially on the restored cover art. This extends to the composite parts of the box set as well, which are many: an LP-sized CD holder containing two CDs and two DVDs, a 12×12 art book containing an essay by Chuck D as well as some excellent photography, a large poster of the band, and a vinyl record of the album. XX is a thoroughly put together package, and it’s a collector’s treat for sure. This is where the first criteria I mentioned, the avoidance of redundancy, comes in. While many of these parts are available through different channels (much of the live footage and music videos are on YouTube; the demos have been leaked and streamed through the internet for some time), XX marks the first official release of a lot of the material, a nice change of pace given the lazy repackaging often seen in these editions.
The other two criteria, namely sound quality and what I’ll call the “elevation factor” (making the record feel more essential than it did before), are less successful in XX. In terms of sound quality, the folks behind this reissue had a lot to work with; Rage Against the Machine has long been hailed as an audiophile’s dream, meaning that anyone wishing to improve the original analog tapes has a lot to live up to. In places, XX does sound like an improvement over the original issue, but when it does it’s by inches rather than miles. Moreover, the improvements made aren’t consistent; one particular bass part will sound good in a particular song, but that quality won’t maintain for long. That RATM can be content with how strong the original tapes were is a testament to their skill in the recording process, but it does prove problematic for anyone attempting a remastering job like this one. The one part of the package that escapes this problem is the vinyl record, which sounds absolutely fantastic. (The vinyl, however, can be purchased by itself.)
But it’s with the fourth and arguably most important criterion, “the elevation factor,” that XX falters most considerably. Upon first hearing that Rage Against the Machine would get this regal treatment, I was taken slightly aback. The album is a classic, sure, and as far as rap-metal hybrids go RATM are near unparalleled, but the presently available editions of it don’t feel insufficient. This extends to the demo disc included here. Despite sounding better than the YouTube/online versions of the tracks people have been downloading for years, the bootleg nature of these demos lends itself more toward finding them online, rather than paying for an official release.
Part of what made this debut so successful is that it felt like a sonic gut-punch, and it did so with a spare list of ingredients. With a simple guitar-bass-drums-vocals setup, RATM made volatile metal music that had the force of an orchestra, something the brand proudly trumpets in the liner notes of XX: “NO SAMPLES, KEYBOARDS, OR SYNTHESIZERS USED IN THE MAKING OF THIS RECORDING.” Nothing but pure, unadulterated rock and roll: that’s what made RATM the force they were back in 1992. This power-to-components ratio remains considerable still today, raising the question: does Rage Against the Machine need to be resurrected?
Using the word “resurrected,” however, implies that a thing was dead and needed reviving in the first place. This definitely isn’t the case for Rage Against the Machine, a fact proven by one of the live DVDs included here. After the English public getting fed up with the perpetual chart dominance of The X Factor‘s musical output, many began campaigning for people to buy RATM’s defining track, “Killing in the Name,” as a big middle finger to the dominant musical paradigms. Bringing back a near twenty-year old track and putting it at the top of the charts sounds like an impossible task, but it happened, and in an act of gratitude RATM played a free show in London’s Finsbury Park, thrillingly captured here. This mini-movement wasn’t just a demonstration of what citizens can do when properly mobilized, it was also the spirit of Rage Against the Machine incarnated in the people. Protest music doesn’t just say things, it also moves people to action and can lead to genuine change. The X Factor may not have been entirely demolished by the resurgence of “Killing in the Name,” but this British populist movement proved that the music and lyrics of a band from Los Angeles, California, could represent them in a meaningful way. The people made their voices heard; not only that, they managed to actively undermine a force of centralized control within the music industry—for what else do programs like American Idol and The X Factor do but manufacture music?
This means there’s another irony to add to the ones mentioned at the beginning of this piece: one of the contents of XX shows why Rage Against the Machine doesn’t need some luxurious new version in order to have the same impact it did back in 1992. This isn’t to say that XX is a throwaway reissue, far from it; for those who have a special connection with RATM’s debut or for anyone who participated in the campaign to put “Killing in the Name” back on the radio in 2009, this will be something to treasure for years to come. It’s as well assembled as one could hope a box set of this type to be assembled. But the excessiveness of the content here suggests that this box set would have been better served in a career-spanning retrospective, not one limited to just the debut album. The key aspect of Rage Against the Machine‘s success is how it used sparse arrangements to make a broad-based political statement, something a package like XX drowns out. All one truly needs to do to experience this album is to pop it into a CD player and let the music speak for itself; it is that good. Zack de la Rocha’s raps haven’t lost their bite, and Tom Morello’s guitar effects are still as innovative as they were when the band first formed. Hell, Rage Against the Machine is still so good it makes one forget that nu-metal was a thing.