The Battle of Washington--U.K. vs. U.S.A. in 1812--left the nation's capital in smoldering ruins. The Battle of D.C.--Rage Against the Machine vs. The Establishment, Sunday night at the 9:30 club--did far less damage to the city but left the capacity crowd with a gigantic earache as the fiercely political band introduced seven songs from its Election Day release, "The Battle of Los Angeles," along with seven agitrock standards from its small but influential catalogue.
Rock-and-rap may rule the charts right now, but when Rage Against the Machine first fused rap, metal and hard-core punk in 1991, it hadn't been done beyond a few significant one-song collaborations between rappers and rockers. Rage built its entire sound around the riotous riffs, crunching chords and thunderous rhythms of guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk, and the angry declamations and politically charged lyrics of singer Zach de la Rocha. It was as if the Clash merged with Public Enemy and then decided to power up like Led Zeppelin.
It's a potent sound that has yet to be matched by any of the metal-rap fusionaries, and certainly none of the new bands has the broad-based agenda espoused by Rage. Over the course of a 70-minute, 14-song set, de la Rocha ranted and railed against media manipulation ("Testify"), government misspending ("Bulls on Parade") and unwarranted authority and conformity ("Bullet in Your Head"), and issued a call to action on both a personal level ("Guerrilla Radio") and in solidarity with Mexico's revolutionary Zapatista movement ("People of the Sun" and "War Within a Breath"). Other targets included corporate greed, police brutality, political chicanery and assorted ethnic and cultural injustices.
Sometimes the sheer rush of words and de la Rocha's keening, over-the-top delivery--often accented with accusatory finger-pointing--reduced everything to what Rolling Stone once described as "harangue'n'roll," but the sheer ferocity of the music and the passionate protesting of social injustices represented a bridge between rock as the embodiment of rebellion and its potential as an instrument of revolution. Or, as de la Rocha put it in "Guerrilla Radio," "It has to start somewhere/ It has to start sometime/ What better place than here/ What better time than now."
Highlights included the opening "Testify," with de la Rocha ragging on the opiating nature of the media as Morello underscored his attack with sharp shards of guitar; the ire of the Public Enemy-styled "Calm Like a Bomb" and "Sleep Now in the Fire"; the relative, albeit temporary, reflective mood of "Born of a Broken Man"; and a thunderous recasting of Bruce Springsteen's "Ghost of Tom Joad."
Throughout the show, Morello's cranked-up guitar and de la Rocha's histrionic sloganeering ignited the mosh pit, particularly toward the end when the band served up three vintage songs, the raging "Bulls on Parade," an expansive "Bullet in the Head" and "Killing in the Name." Before closing with "War Within a Breath," the band invoked the ongoing appeals of imprisoned Native American leader Leonard Peltier and African American journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal and lit the fuse of revolution by noting that "everything can change on a New Year's Day"--a reference to the start of the Zapatista uprising.