Rise Against’s second record, Revolutions Per Minute, was an album almost perfectly of its time. It was a mix of personal and national politics, delivered with the fire of hardcore punk and the melodies of suddenly huge world of pop-punk. It was also an album about big lies told by big folks in power and the small yet important ways individuals push back. This was a strong post-9/11 sentiment, especially in 2003 as we were preparing to invade and get stuck in Iraq.
This is all to say that Revolutions Per Minute was about as timely as an album gets. It was timely in its message but also in showing a band at its peak in songwriting, performing, and energy. The band would move on from this to a major-label career that has been fruitful even if age has sanded down some of the fangs in their music. So to look back at the band’s second album, which Fat Wreck has repackaged with demos as RPM10, is to celebrate the band’s finest moment — even if its message went frustratingly unheard and, to some extent, its promise unfulfilled.
The album starts with the blistering “Black Masks and Gasoline”, which lays some themes pretty bare. “Simply because you can breath doesn’t mean you’re alive,” Tim McIlrath insists at the songs outset, and when the band erupts in power chords and breakneck drums, McIlrath is raising his hands and clenching his fists. It’s a relatively stock image of defiance, and McIlrath’s chorus is plainspoken enough — wondering why “this world is something that you must impress, / because I couldn’t care less — but the band’s fury and McIlrath’s own blend of shredding fury and sweet singing renders the songs, and conviction behind them, convincing. Even in the more personal strife of “Heaven Knows” or the moody grind of “Halfway There”, McIlrath’s ascerbic scream is never too cynical or negative, always bolstered with the positive brightness that is the foundation of his voice.
It also helps that the band was a versatile one, one that may have hit all the punk tropes — lots of power-chords, fist-pumping choruses, speed or volume or (often) both — but they could take them in curious directions. The warm skitter of bass that opens “Like the Angel” provides a melodic base for an otherwise shout-along song. “Blood-Red, White, & Blue” is a musical tour de force, opening with a moody breakdown that opens up into a perfectly catchy punk song that devolves nicely into the album’s most pure distillation of its vitriol. “What God blessed the murder of the innocent?” McIlrath asks, finally cutting directly to the jargon around the build-up to Iraq, and the band clears out to let him scream, only to join in and rage with him seconds later. It’s loud but oddly nuanced and sets up the more muted moves of songs like “Amber Changing” later in the record.
Ten years later the power of these songs are still present — the demos here are only slightly more ragged versions of the album cuts, but they remind you of the blood pumping underneath all this sound — and the album has proved to have some serious staying power in the Fat Wreck and punk canon. Some of the sentiments of the record haven’t aged well — there’s a lot of fists, a lot of us v. them, a curious amount of battle imagery for a band raging against a war — and there are moments that still don’t work. “Dead Ringer” is still a too on-the-nose hardcore statement of principles, while “Last Chance Blueprint” feels like a stock get-out-of-town tune, and it doesn’t help that the American Beauty soundbite that opens the song feels pretty dated.
This is still a fine moment for Rise Against, and maybe people knew it at the time. This did springboard them into a solid major-label career, which would see them sometimes build on this album to great success — check the best parts of Siren Songs of the Counter Culture and Sufferer & the Witness — while still maintaining their core beliefs, like when the first run of Appeal To Reason was printed with vegan ink on recycled material. But they’ve never quite recaptured the flame of RPM, and maybe they shouldn’t. This was a moment for them as much as it was for fans, so while it’s hard to separate what the band has done since this record from the album itself — and it’s hard not to wonder how their later work wasn’t more consistent — it’s best to sit back and revisit this set, to hear the moment a band found its way just as the country was losing its own.