Many will site Rage Against the Machine’s debut, self-titled album as their best. It was (is) powerful stuff from a then 22-year old Zack de la Rocha and 28-year old guitar savant Tom Morello, when their album slipped in between the Nirvana and Pearl Jam grunge tidal wave back in 1992. But it was precursor, a raw album of a band seeking to fine tune its perfect blend of punk, funk, metal, and hip hop. The message was in the lyrics, one of revolution and civil disobedience, but the energy of the band hadn’t peaked.
Then in April of 1996 came Evil Empire.
Evil Empire is Rage Against the Machine’s signature work. It is a stirring, violent, whip-smart lyrical masterpiece with a flow from song to song lacking in the debut album. It was the album of my teens, the CD always in the changer or ready to alter the mood of a party. The past 20 years have only increased my admiration from what de la Rocha, Morello, drummer Brad Will, and bassist Tim Commerford created.
It kicks off with a get-you-off-your-seat rock wallop, the short and twisty “People of The Sun.” Then it follows up with one of the band’s biggest hits to knock you back down, “Bulls on Parade.” The one-two punch of Morello’s bendy chords and de la Rocha working to snap off his angry lyrics with a perfect hip-hop cadence is serene.
From there, Rage Against the Machine settle into a steady and balanced groove of thumping funk charges (“Vietnow”, “Revolver”), spinning anger (“Snakecharmer”)”, and work their way to one of the other big hits of the album: “Down Rodeo.”
I had no reason to identify with “Down Rodeo,” a white teen from a decent small town without much animosity and social injustice in my life. Without wading too far into political waters, I didn’t have any reason for de la Rocha to grab me… but he did. It spoke to the power of his simultaneously shrill and grizzly voice, and to the lyrics he was spitting at me. They were eye opening, and they pointed me in the direction of questioning rather than accepting.
“Rollin’ down Rodeo with a shotgun/These people ain’t seen a brown-skinned man since they grandparents bought one.”
The refrain is deliciously layered, and these few words changed the way I perceived the world outside my bubble. It was time to step outside my comfort zone and question authority.
In the latter part of Evil Empire, Rage Against the Machine goes from hip-hop heavy (“Without a Face”) to anthemic (“Wind Below”), before flexing their punk muscles in “Roll Right.” And then, right when you suspect all the aggression has been spilled out on the studio floor, they tie everything up with “Year of tha Boomerang,” maybe the most balanced and fiery indictment of The Power Structure. And Morello screeching guitar intro tells the listener they aren’t off the hook yet:
Rage Against the Machine would have two more albums – Battle of Los Angeles and the fantastic cover album Renegades – before breaking up in 2000 and taking off into other projects (the announcement of de la Rocha leaving the band came on the heels of Tim Commerford climbing the stage decorations at the MTV Music Video Awards). And both have their merit.
But none of them hold a candle to the completeness of this sophomore effort. It’s Rage peaking, hitting their sweet spot before inner turmoil and political dissidence would dissolve the camaraderie in the band itself. Happy 20th anniversary, Evil Empire.