By Bree Davies
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These screeds were often one-dimensional, as well, but the vital playing of Commerford, Wilk and, most of all, Morello more than compensated for this drawback on disc and on stage. During its first national tour, Rage established itself as one of the best live acts of its era, and as the years passed, the passion of its performances never flagged. In May 1997, the band served as the opening act for U2 at Mile High Stadium, and in the face of weather as nasty as any at a major Colorado outdoor gig that decade, de la Rocha and company put on a show that was hotter than a nuclear reaction. So scorching was Rage that Bono would have been excused for staying in his dressing room until the crowd dissipated -- and in retrospect, he probably should have.
Unfortunately, the raw talent with which Rage overflowed never truly translated into the sort of artistic growth of which it seemed capable. The players issued only two other collections of original material -- 1996's Evil Empire and 1999's The Battle of Los Angeles -- and even though both sport some astonishing offerings, they largely stick with the formula established on their first platter rather than building upon it. In some ways, Rage's 2000 studio farewell, a batch of covers dubbed Renegades, is actually the band's most satisfying CD, if only because the array of songs -- from composers as disparate as Bob Dylan and Eric B. & Rakim -- provided far more musical and lyrical variety than anything else in the Machine catalogue.
By the time Renegades hit stores, de la Rocha had departed for a solo career that's apparently still in a conceptual phase. But Morello, Commerford and Wilk felt no need to split, and they began trolling for a new comrade. After an initial dalliance with B-Real of Cypress Hill, they took the suggestion of Renegades producer Rick Rubin and contacted Cornell, who had been on his own since April 1997, when the members of Soundgarden officially dissolved their partnership in favor of individual projects. In the years that followed, Cornell put out an album under his own name, 1999's Euphoria Morning, that was more low-key than many observers anticipated. When it failed to find an audience on par with the one that embraced Soundgarden's most popular LP, 1994's excellent Superunknown, he slipped from view.
Cornell had a modicum of supergroup experience, having sung for Temple of the Dog, a 1990 tribute to late Mother Love Bone screecher Andrew Wood, and according to everyone concerned, the chemistry between him and the Rage refugees was bubbly from the beginning. But when arguments over profit potential erupted among assorted managers, Cornell backed out -- a key bit of evidence seized upon by journalists interested in characterizing Audioslave as more of a business merger than a band.
Somehow, the subsequent decision by all parties to sack their representatives and sign up jointly under a single firm is seldom taken into consideration. Neither is the quality of the disc the musicians made, which has a more sophisticated flow than anything Rage ever managed, taking listeners through a myriad of emotions instead of only a handful.
"We wanted to make the kind of record that was a listening experience from beginning to end," Morello acknowledges. "We weren't trying to pad out a few singles with some filler. We wanted it to be like some of our favorite records -- Led Zeppelin IV, the Clash's London Calling -- where you can drop the needle on the first song and go on a journey with the band."
Some stops on this trip are more rewarding than others; the album has some slack moments. But almost every cut, from beefy workouts like "Set It Off" and "Exploder" to more contemplative numbers such as "I Am the Highway" and "The Last Remaining Light," gives off a steady glow of intelligence and earnestness that Morello sees as a link to the musicians' better-known work. "One of the things I've found among the fans of our other bands is that they were drawn to those bands because the music was made with honesty and integrity," he says. "And that's exactly what we've done with Audioslave."
As a bonus, Cornell adds a dash of contrariness to the proceedings. "Cochise," the first song and single on Audioslave, is a great radio track complete with a clacking, wheel-of-fortune intro courtesy of Morello that expands into a monstrous guitar groove over which Cornell wails with feverish aplomb. But it also contains lyrics that seem aimed directly at Rage-a-holics who miss de la Rocha's calls for revolution: "I'm not a martyr/I'm not a prophet/And I won't preach to you."
By sticking to this pledge for the remainder of the album, Audioslave stays free of the ideological straitjacket that limited Rage, yet doesn't prevent its members from exercising their duties as citizens of the world. Indeed, Morello has been a veritable free-speech poster child of late, blasting a possible Iraq attack and other policies laid down by President George W. Bush.
"The Bush administration is champing at the bit to go to war, but hasn't been able to so far because the international community recognizes what they're up to," he says. "This is not about terrorism; it's not about weapons of mass destruction. It's about oil, and it's about obfuscating Bush's horrible domestic record. While this is going on, they're sneaking through the biggest tax cuts for the rich in memory, and the deficits are going through the roof. It's very much like the Roman Empire, where they're conquering countries abroad -- Afghanistan, Iraq -- while at home, the economy's going into the toilet and there's growing inequality and unrest."