20 Years Ago: Rage Against the Machine Reemerge More Ferocious Than Ever With ‘Evil Empire’
It turns out that like a fine wine or a tasty stew, fomenting musical rebellion – the kind synonymous with rap-metal forefathers Rage Against the Machine – takes time. A lesser band might have quickly followed-up the massive success of their self-titled 1992 debut and struck while the proverbial iron was hot. But not Rage Against the Machine.
It took some four years for the groundbreaking quartet to re-emerge with Evil Empire, their sophomore full-length, and when they did, it was clear the time wasn’t wasted. They had elevated themselves to an even higher level, both musically and philosophically.
As evidenced by the pile of political books shown inside the CD booklet, mainstream success hadn’t softened Rage’s underground ethos. The injustice-driven anger at the heart of the band’s message burned as brightly as ever on Empire, yet more cerebrally than before. On the self-titled record, vocalist Zack de la Rocha was his most impactful when serving up a blistering emotional response, like when he famously shouts, “F--k you, I won’t do what you tell me” in “Killing in the Name.” Back then, he was coming from a place of pure rage.
But on Empire, de la Rocha took that rage and channeled it, becoming a high-minded force of revolution like the rebels and renegades he so often praised. For example he champions the Mexican Zapatista revolution in the leadoff track, “People of the Sun,” lyrically conveying a struggle that began with the Spanish Conquistadors (“since fifteen hundred and sixteen, minds attacked and overseen”), continuing into modern-day upheaval south of the border (“never forget that the whip snapped ya back / your spine cracked for tobacco”). Throughout the album, information is de la Rocha’s weapon, and he hones it to a razor edge, targeting global oppressors like those he vilified in “Bulls on Parade,” who “don’t gotta burn books / they just remove ‘em.”
Musically, Rage were just as deadly as ever on Evil Empire. Bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk shine once again, propelling the tracks with a relentless onslaught of head-bobbing rhythms, frequently playing counterpoint to guitarist Tom Morello’s staccato attack. Morello, meanwhile, emerges as an even more ferocious six-string monster on Evil Empire, never failing to amaze with an almost cacophonic flurry of chirps, scratches and squeals. He also showcases his rock roots in all the right places; if Morello’s not getting his weird on with his whammy pedal, he lays down a barrage of chunky groove-metal riffs that are equal parts Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and P-Funk, yet kicked into overdrive. No matter where you listen on Empire, Morello is doing something wickedly cool.
Evil Empire also marks one of the great works by producer Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, Soundgarden) and mixer Andy Wallace (Guns N’ Roses, Faith No More) who achieved a crisp and clean yet remarkably powerful sonic stew. You can hear every note played with stunning clarity, making the band sound even tighter, yet when the heavy moments come (and they do) the record still melts your face off. It’s an awesome achievement.
Evil Empire debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200, and was certified triple-platinum four years later. The album spawned five singles including “Bulls On Parade” and “People Of The Sun,” both of which were nominated for Grammys in separate years. Another cut, “Tire Me,” won the Grammy for Best Metal Performance in 1996. Veteran critic Robert Christgau offered a particularly astute summation: “Three years late, it's the militant rap-metal everybody knew was the next big thing. Zack de la Rocha will never be Linton Kwesi Johnson. But collegiate leftism beats collegiate lots of other things, not to mention high school misogyny, and it takes natural aesthetes like these to pound home such a sledgehammer analysis.”
In terms of RATM’s legacy, Evil Empire was a lot more than just another album; it was a shining example of how to avoid the sophomore slump. Looking back, it would’ve been all-too typical for Rage Against the Machine to disappear from relevance after their debut smash like so many of the fly-by-night rap-metal clones that swam in their wake. Instead, they came back angrier, tighter and more determined, loading more weapons to their sonic arsenal, cementing their status as a legitimate musical and socio-political force.