By Gabriel San Roman
It was no coincidence that Rage Against the Machine released The Battle of Los Angeles in 1999 on what is traditionally observed as Election Day in the United States. The 2000 election season was already in gear, with Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore setting up to spar -- but Rage struck first.
The band's third studio album claimed the top spot on the charts, burning with unbridled rebellion fueled by Zack de la Rocha's radical rhymes and Tom Morello's experimental mastery on guitar. In many ways, the world hasn't changed nearly enough in the past fifteen years.
De la Rocha served up a searing critique on "Guerrilla Radio," the album's first single: "A silent play in the shadow of power/A spectacle monopolized/The camera's eyes on choice disguised/Was it cast for the mass who burn and toil?/Or for the vultures who thirst for blood and oil?"
Morello cranked out a blistering guitar solo that sounded more like the work of a deranged harmonica before bringing the song to its riff-rocking climax of "All hell can't stop us now!" The opening salvo in The Battle of Los Angeles had been fired.
When looking back at Rage's finest album, you can't ignore the political climate in which it arrived. The Zapatista rebellion in the Mexican state of Chiapas that heavily influenced de la Rocha's politics continued into its fifth year. President Bill Clinton oversaw the deregulation of Wall Street, which would have severe consequences in the decade to come. Devastating sanctions continued against Iraq. A simmering rebellion against corporate globalization struck with the Battle of Seattle just a few weeks after the album's release.
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The pulse of protest can be felt throughout. De la Rocha melded the old with the new in his most poignant songwriting on record. The imprint of socialist journalist and novelist George Orwell echoes as Rage's frontman seethes, "Who controls the past now controls the future/Who controls the present now controls the past," on the tone-setting "Testify." His storytelling on "Maria" was accentuated by the brilliant bass lines of Irvinite Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk's timely drumming. "Ashes in the Fall" proved that The Battle of Los Angeles was also a sonic revolution advancing the boundaries of rock rap.
The tragedy of Rage Against the Machine's finest hour is that it turned out to be its final one. The prophecy of its album title came true nearly a year after its release. The band took to the stage for a fierce performance outside the Democratic National Convention in August 2000. The Los Angeles Police Department pulled the plug after the show and got projectile-happy with protesters. The band broke up soon after, never to regain its momentum or deliver a followup of original material. The moment couldn't have come at a more unfortunate time, with the darkness of the Bush administration looming on the horizon.
The Battle of Los Angeles's incendiary songs still brim with fervor, precisely because so little has changed since the record's release. Mumia Abu-Jamal remains imprisoned. Striking revelations about NSA government spying illuminate de la Rocha's Orwell-inspired rhymes anew. The Great Recession sparked attention to the growing gap between rich and poor that Rage decried when shutting down Wall Street before it ever got "occupied" -- during the Michael Moore-directed video shoot for "Sleep Now in the Fire."
"What better place than here?" Zack de la Rocha timelessly asked fifteen years ago. "What better time than now?"
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