Aaron S. Bayley
In November 1999, when Rage Against The Machine released The Battle of Los Angeles, their third and final studio album of original material, politics in the United States could best be described as banal. Bill Clinton was impeached earlier in the year but acquitted by the Democrat-controlled senate, and the country was a year away from an election between two uninspiring candidates, the bland Al Gore and an intellectually challenged George W. Bush. In the lyrics and music video for their 2000 single "Testify," Rage framed the choice as a zero-sum game between two equally futile candidates. The album's first single, "Guerrilla Radio," has frontman Zac de la Rocha cynically asking, "More for Gore or the son of a drug lord" before answering with a defiant "None of the above/fuck it cut the cord." In October 2000, Rage would disband (though they would sporadically reunite to play one-off shows until 2011), and two months later Bush would be handed the presidency after a controversial ballot recount.
After more than a decade, Rage Against The Machine is back along with show openers Run The Jewels, taking their "Public Service Announcement Tour" to North American and European cities in a dystopian political climate that makes 2000's Florida recount look like a fairy tale. It was clear from their first show in Alpine Valley, Wisconsin, that Rage was firing on all cylinders. The trio of guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford, and drummer Brad Wilk didn't have much rust to shake off due to their tenure as Audioslave and, more recently, Prophets of Rage. De la Rocha, who had been the least active over the years, has a tamer hair cut but has lost none of his fiery delivery. Considering that every member of the band is now in their 50s—Morello is 58—their energy is unparalleled. At Toronto's Scotiabank Arena, the atmosphere was electric.
In keeping with their unapologetic agenda of fighting for human rights and social justice, Rage flashed poignant political messages and provocative images on the screen behind the stage. The show opener "Bombtrack" is accompanies by the bleak message "Fear is your Only God." The slogan "Abort the Supreme Court" that appears at the end of "Freedom" is a response to the SCOTUS decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. In Ottawa, the message "Settler-Colonialism is Murder" was a criticism of Canada's history of oppression of Indigenous Peoples. In Hamilton, de la Rocha gave a speech urging the crowd to use collective power to organize against fascism and wealthy tyrants. And in Toronto, the frontman implored those in attendance to fight for their freedoms, an ambiguous directive which could be taken differently by progressives and conservatives, the latter of which were outnumbered but still in attendance.
Rage followed "Bombtrack" with "People of the Sun" and crowd-pleaser "Bulls On Parade" from their sophomore album Evil Empire. The machine-like, bass heavy groove of "Bulls" was infectious and showed the band in perfect synchronicity. They bulldozed through "Bullet in the Head," "Testify," "Take the Power Back," "Wake Up," and "Guerrilla Radio," with Wilk providing rock solid time and Morello displaying boundless energy and using his trademark DJ-inspired guitar wizardry to dazzle the crowd. On "Down Rodeo," de la Rocha spits, "So now I'm rollin' down Rodeo wit a shotgun/These people ain't seen a brown skin man since their grandparents bought one" as Commerford bounces on his toes like a boxer ready to strike. The band kept the intensity going with fan favourite "Know Your Enemy," and the crowd's energy reached it's peak during the Sabbath-worthy riff for "Freedom" and as the bridge section of "Township Rebellion" segued to show-closer "Killing In the Name." As someone who had tickets to the cancelled 2000 show featuring Rage Against The Machine and the Beastie Boys schedule for Molson Park in Barrie, and who had never before seen RATM live, this show was the most fulfilling concert of my life.
Despite playing at a slower tempo and lower decibel, Rage Against The Machine's comeback is unquestionably triumphant, and their shows are blowing away the lethargic performances of many of their hard rock contemporaries who are currently touring. Nobody expected otherwise. Though de La Rocha injured his leg during the band's second show in Chicago and has been sitting on equipment at the front of the stage ever since, he is still able to communicate a sense of urgency and indignation with his body language and lyrics—which, to this day, are second to none when it comes to pointed political and societal commentary and critique. Hopefully fans will get to see him prowl the stage in future dates.
From a sociological perspective, what's fascinating about the Rage Against The Machine phenomenon is those who, now in their 30s and 40s, are only now noticing that the band has a political agenda. When a Twitter user named Scott tweeted to Morello in 2020, "Music is my sanctuary and the last thing I want to hear is political BS when I'm listening to music," the guitarist quickly responded, "Scott!! What music of mine were you a fan of that DIDN'T contain 'political BS'? I need to know so I can delete it from the catalog." The stock conservative and decidedly uncreative comment "Rage With The Machine" can be seen in the comment section of YouTube's RATM videos from disgruntled former fans too embarrassed to admit they missed the memo. Then again, it's never too late to become informed, to reflect on your values, and to reconsider where you stand on the political spectrum. It sounds cliché to say, but Rage Against The Machine is more relevant now than ever before. With democracy more fragile than ever and the rise of fascism, rising inflation and economic uncertainty, and the existential threat of climate change, what better place than here? What better time than now?