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Music

Revisiting the visceral masterpiece of Rage Against the Machine's debut album

Very few bands release a debut album so momentous and era-defining that every other album they release is hard-pressed to match the incredibly high standards set by the first one.

One would argue that no other debut album by a rock band in the 1990s was as crucial as Rage Against the Machine‘s self-titled record that first hit shelves on the 3rd of November 1992. Musically incredible and lyrically so politically charged and dense, it is unrivalled.

Without the record, nu-metal and everything that followed would not have had the doors blown down for them to reign supreme at the end of the ’90s, and in a way, regardless of your opinions, the musical landscape today would look completely different without the LA band’s pioneering steps. Their contributions to music and culture on the record were massive.

On the record, and moving forward, Rage Against the Machine perfected the rap-rock formula that the likes of the Beastie Boys and Aerosmith and Run-DMC had established at the end of the ’80s, and created something more powerful than audiences could have ever imagined.

If the image of the protesting monk, Thích Quảng Đức, self-immolating was not already a bold statement of intent, then the visceral music that followed was enough to shake your bones to dust. Typically, it was also slapped with one of those ubiquitous ‘Parental Advisory Explicit Content’ stickers courtesy of Tipper Gore’s notorious Parents Music Resource Center.

It swiftly became one of the most polarizing opuses ever released, society hadn’t quite reached the ‘nothing’s shocking’ epoch yet. There’s Chomskyist political ideas, expletives, funk, hard-rock, metal, rap, everything the youth of the era needed, and everything the youth of the era wanted, whether they knew it or not. Think Nevermind, but laced with left-wing, anti-capitalist sentiment.

The ending lyric of track two, ‘Killing in the Name’, “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” perfectly encapsulates just how belligerent the record was. Now we come to the true genius of the album. Nearly 30 years after its release, the lyrical themes of taking power back, anti-racist, anti-fascist and anti-bigotry have never been so pertinent. In short, it took the almost futile angst of grunge, and moulded it into something intellectual and mature. Gen X had grown up.

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The themes that frontman Zack de la Rocha discusses on the record are so angry and critical of the United States government that it’s very easy to imagine every WASP parent at the time being incredibly offended by this long-haired, unruly quartet coming in and totally dismantling their status quo.

An incredible punk poet, one would argue that de le Rocha gives Patti Smith a run for her money. Every song is brimming with perceptive political sloganeering and critical takes on society that are genuinely mindblowing no matter how many times you’ve heard the record. Lyrically, the most memorable part is the direct reference to a speech made by Martin Luther King Jr. in ‘Wake Up’, which paraphrases the famous Bible verse, “whatever a man sows, this he will also reap” (Galatians 6:7).

King delivered the speech in 1965 at the end of the iconic Selma to Montgomery March on the steps of the State Capitol Building in Montgomery, Alabama. The final lines of it read, “How Long? Not long, because ‘you shall reap what you sow’.” De la Rocha directly plucks the line and screams it at the end of the song. It remains a defiant call to arms to every working-class listener regardless of origin.

Musically, this was the band at their finest. None of their following albums are as captivating and visceral. This was the first time we were treated to Tom Morello’s unique, drop-D riffing, and on it, we get some of his best licks. Furthermore, bass player Tim Commerford makes a bold claim for being one of the most underrated bass players of the past 30 years, with the heavy tones of his MusicMan Sting Ray providing the tracks with their heavy but funk-driven edge. Also, drummer Brad Wilk holds the whole thing together like a dynamically gifted glue, versatile and swaggering, his dextrous playing channels the spirit of John Bonham.

From start to finish, it’s one hell of a ride. ‘Bombtrack’, ‘Take the Power Back’, ‘Bullet in the Head’, ‘Wake Up’, ‘Freedom’ and even ‘Know Your Enemy’, featuring Tool’s Maynard James Keenan, are all classics.

Unrelenting, like a barrage of punches, by the end of the record, you’ve heard the band’s message loud and clear. It’s a total contradiction in the sense that the music is so catchy, but the lyrics are so severe. After the album’s 53-minute duration, you’ll be left gasping for air; that is how powerful it is. 

This was Rage Against the Machine at their purest. After this, they would never release an album as concise or punchy, they would carry on using their formula, but its power would be watered down. They continued to give us many significant moments, but by the time the group split in 2000, their debut album would still be viewed as their best, a telling sign.

For as long as politics is rigged in favour of those in power, this record will be one of the most important ever released. A call to arms for the oppressed, the downtrodden and the ignored, it’s a masterpiece. As de la Rocha says, “anger is a gift”.

Listen to Rage Against the Machine in full below.