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Rage Against the Machine

The Battle of Los Angeles
(Epic)

Believe you me, I understand full well why folks have been raving about this disc: With much of what passes for heavy music these days being so relentlessly stoopid, it's bracing to discover a long-player that mates big guitar noise with words that are actually about something. But anyone who has even a passing familiarity with the music these guys have made to date will soon discover that their latest stuff isn't overflowing with examples of creative development. The differences between the Rage heard on its first two CDs (1993's Rage Against the Machine and 1996's Evil Empire) and the one that made The Battle of Los Angeles are so infinitesimal that you'd need a microscope to find them.

As before, the band's chief attributes are the inventive racket ejaculated by guitarist Tom Morello and the undeniable passion of singer Zack de la Rocha, who together help make this particular Machine one of the great live acts of its generation. But song after song follows the same pattern: punk-funk riffing, stop-and-start tempos and chanted/rapped/shouted lines about the injustices that afflict the populace. Ol' Zack is capable of conjuring up some singular imagery -- consider "I be walkin' god like a dog/My narrative fearless/My word war returns to burn/Like Baldwin home from Paris," which leads off "Calm Like a Bomb [245K aiff]." Moreover, he occasionally nods toward storytelling, most notably on "Maria [245K aiff]," about a peasant who's literally worked to death. But he puts most of his energy into the sort of catch-phrases that would fit on a bumper sticker, or maybe an Alarm album: "Who controls the past now controls the future" ("Testify" [259K aiff]), "All hell can't stop us now" ("Guerrilla Radio"), "You'll never silence the voice of the voiceless" ("Voice of the Voiceless"), and so on. His goal, no doubt, is to use such rallying cries to line up more soldiers for the cause, but he's preaching to the choir; if listeners aren't already incensed about the Mumia Abu-Jamal case, no slogan is apt to change their minds.

That's not to belittle the collective's accomplishments, or its new recording. From a sheer sonic perspective, "Testify," "Guerrilla Radio," "Mic Check" and "Sleep Now in the Fire" blow up as efficiently as previous Rage pipe bombs, and "Ashes in the Fall," keyed to Morello's thin, effects-laden tones, has an arrangement that almost belies the couplet "This is the new sound/Just like the old sound." But that doesn't disguise the fact that de la Rocha and his comrades have more or less made the same disc three times now. And I bet I'll be writing the same thing about number four.

 
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