Arguably one of the most important bands of the old millennium’s final decade, Rage Against the Machine was the embodiment of anger. From Zack de la Rocha’s furious lyrics to Tom Morello’s distinctive guitar work, the band established itself as legitimate musical rebels through a unique blend of aggressive rap-infused metal. What set Rage apart from other ’90s anti-establishment acts like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Jane’s Addiction was its willingness to regularly stand in the line of critical fire. By supporting numerous left-leaning, socio-political causes, Rage became the poster children for modern day artistic revolution, often praised and demonized in the same breath. Controversial ideologies aside, the Ragers had to be admired for their commitment to walking the walk and standing up for what they believed in.
For a band with so much to say, and so much desire to spread its message, the most perplexing component of the Rage legacy comes by way of its sparse recorded output. Despite the brilliance of its studio efforts, a mere four albums in nine years is hardly a sizeable catalogue for a band with Rage’s reputation, yet that’s what fans have been left with… Until now…
Live at the Grand Olympic Auditorium is the final installment in the Rage saga, and perhaps a justifiably fitting epitaph. Culled from the band’s last live performances on 12 and 13 September 2000, the material encapsulates the best and worst of Rage on stage, leaving a faint trace of “what if?” hanging in the air.
If nothing else, the band’s trademark anger is unleashed from the start. The opening chords of “Bulls on Parade” explode on contact, and resonate to the closing track, “Freedom”. De la Rocha shrieks and howls his way through standard Rage classics, as Morello plays with calculated abandon, displaying his vastly underrated talents as a guitar visionary. “Bullet in the Head”, “Calm Like a Bomb”, and “People of the Sun” drip with hostility and angst just as they should, but for all of the fire and passion present in the Olympic footage, the new CD is marred by several glaring inconsistencies.
The unique brutality of Rage’s music was not solely attributable to de la Rocha and Morello, but in large part due to the contributions of bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk. The bludgeoning rhythmic foundation to Rage is what allowed de la Rocha and Morello to pursue their respective paths of exploration, while providing the band with a semblance of sonic continuity. Why then is the Olympic mix so obviously lacking in low end? With the advancements made in live recording technology during recent years, this is an inexcusable oversight, and one even more glaring when considering the importance of Commerford and Wilk to Rage’s underlying sound.
And what of de la Rocha’s vocals? His performance is for the most part solid, yet there are moments when his screech is high pitched enough to break glass. Could this not have been tweaked by a bit of studio wizardry? Purists may argue the inherent difficulties in capturing dynamic live performances, and eschew the use of in-house refinement, but such protestations ring hollow when evidenced by the brilliantly remixed versions of the Who’s Live at Leeds and the recently released Led Zeppelin epic three disc set, How the West Was Won.
A final shortcoming worth noting comes in the way of track listing. Although sixteen songs would normally be considered generous, it seems wholly insufficient to represent Rage’s closing performance together. With two Olympic shows to distill material from, a double-length CD would not have too much to ask for, even if it meant the addition of more cover songs à la the ambitious Renegades album. Although the two included covers are less than stellar, (with de la Rocha brutalizing the lyrics to the MC5 classic “Kick out the Jams”), any additional material would have been appreciated, particularly with a more precise mix down.
All in all, Live at the Grand Olympic Auditorium is far from perfect, but it is what we have left to remember the live potential of Rage Against the Machine. And like the band’s career and studio productivity, the CD doesn’t seem like quite enough from a band as good as Rage.
Alas, we will have to make do.