“I have an American dream, but it involves black masks and gasoline.” This line, taken from an early 2000s punk record, might well characterize an age. On the one hand, the alienation of adolescence. On the other, the expression of that alienation as radical, if futile, rebellion. Lyrics such as these, and the album from which they originated, remain a potent (if typically earnest) summary of coming of age at the end of history.
Released a month after the US-led invasion of Iraq, Rise Against‘s Revolutions Per Minute is not the only artifact turning 20 this year. Arriving just weeks after the first bombs started to fall on Baghdad, Revolutions Per Minute is, whether its authors intended or not, an accurate and, at times, a visceral reflection of the anxieties of a generation experiencing its first real political awakening.
Before going further, some consideration is due to the war in question. Its basis, the existence of weapons of mass destruction, was refuted at the time and never proved. Estimates of casualties range at over half a million, including hundreds of thousands of civilians and military personnel, while tens of millions are estimated to have been displaced by the invasion.
The subsequent destabilization of the region is considered a major factor in the emergence of the Islamic State, a terrorist organization that has (and in some cases continues) to oppress and commit human rights atrocities across Iraq and Syria. In the US, the invasion of Iraq and the so-called “War on Terror”, of which it was part, is thought to have contributed to increasing securitization, restriction of civil liberties, and massive inflation of military budgets in the US, whose bipartisan approval continues to this day.
In both the US and the UK, the politicians and media that led both countries into war have never faced accountability for their catastrophic decision. In fact, Donald Trump’s presidency and the UK’s Brexit referendum have provided useful opportunities for rehabilitation. Former President George W. Bush is a cuddly elder statesman on talk shows. Meanwhile, former New Labour spin doctor Alistair Campbell (infamous for his ‘sexed-up’ dossier’ on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction) has authored a book about “why politics has gone so wrong”. If fate has a sense of humor, it is undoubtedly quite a morbid one.
It’s crucial to state all this in 2023 and to keep repeating it because these facts are all too easily forgotten. Despite attempts to categorize the war as an inevitability that could not have been avoided, there was widespread criticism and political and public resistance that argued otherwise, not least in music.
Antipathy to the war was not hard to find in the popular culture of the time. A month prior to the release of Revolutions Per Minute, country pop group the Dixie Chicks made headlines for announcing to a London crowd their ‘shame’ over the war, resulting in death threats and industry blacklisting.
In recent times, country musicians – Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, and Margo Price, to name a few – have been less afraid to express liberal and even left-wing views. But back then, before the Internet reduced music scenes to one big soup, there were clear dividing lines demarcating support or opposition to the war – a cultural polarisation parodied by the South Park episode “I’m a Little Bit Country”.
No such risks existed for Rise Against. Rock music was for criticism of the war, and punk music especially. Rise Against’s record label, Fat Wreck Chords, even initiated a campaign against President Bush’s re-election entitled “Rock Against Bush”. The campaign involved the production of two volumes of music, a tour, and a “Not My President” t-shirt, the proceeds of which were spent on voter registration drives in swing states. George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004.
Rise Against were, therefore, not doing anything out of the ordinary. They weren’t pushing the envelope musically, nor were their politics exceptional. As with their contemporaries, the anti-war movement, and the public at large, their protests did not end the war, nor did they bring down the government. If the band helped provide a soundtrack to the kinds of revolutions evoked in their album’s audacious title, those upheavals quite obviously did not occur.
No, the significance of Revolutions Per Minute is not in what it accomplished but in what it represented for a certain kind of young person at a certain time in history. For an album released in the context of the war, the conflict features relatively little in the songs. There are allusions to distrust of the government, to the horrors of bloodshed, and (as hinted above) to the need for defiant protest. But Revolutions Per Minute’s real strength comes from personal, emotional themes.
Who am I? Where am I going in life? What is this world, and what is my place within it? What does it mean to believe in something and to fight for it against forces impossible to overcome? These are the questions about which Revolutions Per Minute is particularly concerned. As a result, the album is less a statement on the war but rather an expression of how it felt to grow up with it.
Revolutions Per Minute is an album of crunching guitars, bludgeoning drums, rattling bass, and Tim McIlrath’s voice – at times emotive and righteous, others frenzied and blood-curdling. The opener, “Black Masks and Guillotine”, establishes as much with McIlrath’s furious evocations of clenched fists and the horrors of war paired against pummeling blast beats and walls of guitar and bass.
Needless to say, it’s loud. Rise Against brought in Bill Stevenson of Descendents and Black Flag fame to produce Revolutions Per Minute alongside Jason Livermore. Stevenson and Livermore’s experience playing and producing hardcore punk can be heard across Revolutions Per Minute, capturing and highlighting the band’s raw energy while ensuring each instrument sounded crisp and powerful in the mix.
Rise Against showed that a punk band could be respected among purists while making big, anthemic music. Revolutions Per Minute, a blend of heavy sounds, technical mastery, and wrought emotion, somehow managed the difficult trick of angst-fuelled, politically-engaged music – radical but not alienating, noisy but not niche.
The songwriting on display is also impressive. Rise Against certainly understood how to write fast and heavy music, but what sets the songs on Revolutions Per Minute apart is the dynamic variance and tight, if expressive, structures. Tension and release, breakdown and crescendo – all are used to devastating and often cathartic effect, notably on album standouts like “Heaven Knows” or “Last Chance Blueprint”.
Vocalist McIlrath has been mentioned before, but enough can’t be said of what his voice does to uplift Rise Against’s sound. There’s fury there, but vulnerability as well, lending an authentic emotionality to closer “Amber Changing”, or “Halfway There”, the latter an exasperated plea for unity, resistance, and freedom that is both rousing and undeniable.
Desiring to keep one foot in the hardcore scene while exploring more accessible, even radio-friendly terrain, songs on Revolutions Per Minute cater to both crowds. “Dead Ringer” and “To the Core” show Rise Against’s hardcore roots, while “Voices Off Camera” and “Like the Angel” (the latter a dedication of love rather than political will) demonstrate this straddling of worlds.
This talent for well-crafted, thrashing, and inspiring music is best displayed in “Broken English”. Fusing the gang vocals of punk, the blast beats of hardcore, and chords open, triumphant, and soaring – the song is an affecting call to take ownership of one’s life and destiny and, in the words of the band’s musical forebear Black Flag, to rise above. “Are you out there? Are you listening? Is there something we’re still missing?” McIlrath calls to an unnamed authority, an existential questioning familiar to anyone experiencing a personal crisis, particularly the young.
Looking back on Revolutions Per Minute as an adult, now older, wearied, and altogether more cynical, it’s easy to scoff at some content. Whether it’s emotional outpourings or, in some places, admittedly hackneyed political commentary, there are moments on the album which do border on the cringeworthy.
“The heart is something you can’t control / You either choose to follow or be left on your own” sounds quite profound as a teenager, but feels laughably trite approaching middle age. Likewise, the appeals to resistance can feel a little toothless, too, such as questioning patriotic jingoism on the unsubtly-titled “Blood-Red, White and Blue”. “Would God bless America?” Tim McIlrath screams, showcasing the limits of 2000s-era popular dissent.
Could Revolutions Per Minute be made today? Much of the record’s grievances, from unaccountable and war-hungry governments to corporate greed, are, if anything, more relevant than ever before. These issues may have remained the same, but our understanding of them has changed.
The past 20 years of Western political and social life have been years of decline. Rapidly decelerating qualities of life have been set against rapidly accelerating technological advances. Austerity, corruption, inequality, and ecological collapse have all been understood, experienced, and communicated in real life and via our many millions of interconnected digital lives. This has resulted in an age of extremes rather than consensus, cynicism rather than naivety, and action rather than complacency.
The outlets for political expression and organization have changed, too. Whereas protest (in the streets and the songs) was once the only option, the past decade has seen viable radical and progressive electoral projects emerge on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as the resurgence of the Western trade union movement for many years only active in parts of Europe, while diminished in the United States and the United Kingdom.
By contrast, Revolutions Per Minute arrived at a time of unparalleled liberal capitalist hegemony. With an organized Western left reduced to irrelevancy, political protest in the 2000s could only ever have been, at best powerless and, at worst, performative.
Consider how an album as obnoxious and with such skin-deep analysis as Green Day’s American Idiot could also be one of the most commercially-successful artistic statements against the war. Consider how anti-war campaigns, like “Rock Against Bush” or filmmaker Michael Moore’s Slacker Uprising, could only ever conceive of voter registration as an effective means of stopping the conflict. In the US, this would have (and probably in some cases did) result in more votes for the Democrats who, in characteristic opposition to the desires and beliefs of many of their constituents, nevertheless supported the war.
Revolutions Per Minute must also be regarded in the musical context of the time. The 2000s were the last era in which rock or guitar-based music could frequently chart before hip-hop and electronic pop secured dominance. While it is true that hardcore is having something of a renaissance at the moment, the success of bands like Turnstile or Soul Glo is still very much relegated to the indie sphere rather than the Top 40. In the 2000s, however, punk was mainstream.
Rise Against may have made music for the punk and hardcore scenes, but stylistically they were not so far removed from the more popular offshoots of both – such as then popular (if often unfairly maligned) emo and post-hardcore.
The band were clearly unafraid of embracing bigger audiences; for one year after Revolutions Per Minute, they signed to the major label Geffen and released Siren Song of the Counter Culture. This record would sell half a million copies in the US, giving a sense of their potential as a mainstream act and the widespread appeal of such music at the time.
Emotional, heavy music was hardly obscure in 2003. Revolutions Per Minute could easily be situated with notable emo and post-hardcore releases of the year, such as Thrice’s “The Artist in the Ambulance”, Thursday’s “War All the Time'” or BoySetsFire’s similarly politically-charged “Tomorrow Come Today”. Fans of Rise Against, and punk music in general, might balk at these comparisons – but the fact that such similarities can be drawn is a sign of how times have changed in the 20 years since the album was released.
Before the Internet and streaming changed how people interact, understand, and even create music, scenes were far more rigidly defined. In many ways, these definitions had less to do with the music than the perceptions of insiders and outsiders to those scenes.
Rise Against may have had a mainstream appeal but emerged from an easily understood and clearly defined scene. Such a scene no longer exists, at least not like it did in the 2000s. This is not altogether a bad thing.
The fact that young music fans might now have an appreciation for rock, rap, and pop means they (and musicians generally) may have a greater degree of openness and appreciation for diverse sounds, styles, and even cultures than they did at the turn of the century. Revolutions Per Minute in this context may (not unfairly) present a relatively homogenous sound for and by a rather homogenous audience.
Still, for all the exciting and refreshing developments in punk and hardcore music, it does feel like something may have been lost – for good or bad. A sound and style that felt knowable, from a scene that felt contained, with innocence or even optimism. Or perhaps these are merely the projections of a writer re-visiting music of their youth and that bittersweet pang of nostalgia from being transported to memory, now past and forgotten.
Revolutions Per Minute doesn’t entirely belong to 2003. Taken with all its limitations, it’s just as captivating and rewarding a listen now as it was then. The 20 years have not diminished its urgency or its power. Its themes of alienation from authority, country, and a brutalizing status quo find real relevance at a time when crisis is not a single totalizing event like the Iraq War but rather a daily occurrence. Rise Against’s masterpiece deserves reappraisal – a vital work about loss of innocence in a fraught time and a call to arms to fight in a new one.