Even before I heard the group’s music, I loved Rage Against the Machine. The bombastic name was enough. Rage was a so-called “political” band during a period when heavy-hitting aesthetes such as Pavement and Nirvana seemed either counterrevolutionary or just plain chickenshit, depending on your party affiliation. But if you secretly preferred the line of punk drawn by the Clash, Gang of Four, and, a little later, Minor Threat and the mighty Minutemen, the p-word could elicit only positive feelings. These days, short attention spans and deep-seated cynicism have made bands that put politics front-and-center seem like boring pedants, but during punk’s formative years, social statement was an essential part of the mix, as integral as safety pins, poorly played power chords, and loogies hawked at the audience. Oi!
It’s possible to blame this intellectual backward slide on second-
generation alternagroups, which, like their ’90s brethren, were mostly apolitical sound-over-sense bands. The Replacements and Hüsker Dü were amazing, but they never betrayed much interest in politics on their records, not even from a commentator’s point of view. R.E.M., arguably the greatest band of the ’80s, made its best records when no one could understand what Michael Stipe was saying—which was no coincidence.
Not Rage Against the Machine. To me, the most pointless complaint about the band has always been that its music serves its politics. To which I can only respond: And? On some level, it’s hard to care much that the group’s politics are shortsighted or reactionary or sometimes even just plain wrong. The fact that a rock ‘n’ roll band was once again using music’s seductive power to promote a subversive message was thrilling, particularly in such a banal period for popular music as the ’90s. And the thrill remains in the ’00s: If forced to choose between the softly focused, nonrepresentational art rock of Radiohead’s (admittedly amazing) Kid A and Rage’s new covers record, Renegades, I’d take the one that features Zack de la Rocha spitting out Cypress Hill’s “How I Could Just Kill a Man.”
Let’s get it over with, though, because there’s no doubt about it: Renegades is mostly a mélange of metal, hiphop, and funk—a description that could apply equally well to Limp Bizkit and a dozen other also-rans. But regardless of how you feel about Rage’s sonic specialty, de la Rocha & Co. do it better than any of their contemporaries, choosing to cover songs that actually sound invigorated by the band’s self-conscious brutalizing. The disc makes clear the group’s affection for the likes of Minor Threat (whose “In My Eyes” gets relatively straightforward treatment here) and Afrika Bambaataa (whose “Renegades of Funk” doesn’t) without sacrificing the matter-of-fact intensity that marks Rage’s best work.
On Renegades, Rage seems especially committed to the musical portion of its caustic show. The group constructs huge walls of sound throughout the album, and producer Rick Rubin, as he’s done on records as disparate as the Beasties’ Licensed to Ill and Johnny Cash’s recent discs, increases the density by pushing those walls in on one another, fusing the bass to the guitar to the percussion to the vocals in a way that makes the four-man group sound like a singular entity. Rubin’s assistance gives Rage’s collectivism a new meaning, in a neat trick of aural atmospherics befitting a group that includes plenty of Marxist texts in its online reading list, seals an activists’ contact list inside its new CD’s jewel case, and includes a credit for its “political coordinator” in the liner notes. (It’s Jake Sexton, in case you were wondering.)
But mainly the medium is the music on Renegades. For its terrific cover of “Street Fighting Man,” Rage discards the scrappy rock swagger of the Stones’ original, replacing it with an insistent two-note guitar riff that approximates the sirens on Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise.” Only once does the band resort to the track’s classic rock melody. Appropriately enough, that occurs around the words “I’ll shout and scream/I’ll kill the king/I’ll rail at all his servants,” which sound doubly dangerous coming from de la Rocha, who puts Mick Jagger’s sloganeering skills to shame.
Of the 12 tracks on Renegades, though, the MC5 cover “Kick Out the Jams” is the best. Featuring a world-famous Cro-Magnon chord progression that was at least as influential for Ted Nugent as it was for the legion of important indie groups it’s said to have inspired, the track lends itself perfectly to Rage’s blistering attack. And it even gains a few IQ points in the translation. Second-best is the band’s twisted take on Devo’s “Beautiful World,” which replaces the goofy original with a simmering, lower-register murder ballad. This sinister rendition is a perfect soundtrack for the onset of yet another Bush administration and, like the rest of the incendiary agitprop on Renegades, a guaranteed bad time—in all the right ways, of course.
Tool’s new Salival is just bad; I guarantee it. The erstwhile Lollapaloozers have apparently reached that point in their career at which they feel the need to release a disc of outtakes, even though, to untrained ears at least, their entire oeuvre seems to comprise nothing but. The outtakes disc, which features live as well as unreleased studio tracks, constitutes one-third of Salival, a lavishly packaged two-disc-and-one-fat-booklet set that documents the group’s creepy ‘n’ tedious graphic- and sound-design sensibility. The other disc, a DVD, features a collection of videos that, taken together, approximate the worst video game you’ll ever play.
Still, fans of the band are likely to swoon when lead singer Maynard James Keenan (who’s moonlighting in A Perfect Circle these days) prefaces a live track by requesting the audience’s “permission” to play an old song. Whereupon Tool re-creates Aenima’s “Pushit” as a plodding Live-like B-side, complete with a bongo solo during what should be the fadeout. The track goes on for seven additional minutes, however—each of them epic, natch.
Elsewhere, Tool serves up what sounds like the resurgence of boogie metal. The early “Part of Me” (from 1992’s Opiate EP) fares best: The group sounds something like a post-Nirvana Foghat, an idea whose time may yet come. The throbbing power of that track, however, makes the relative wispiness of “Message to Harry Manback II” all the more unfortunate. And later, the band tries to recover with nine-plus minutes of something called “Merkaba,” but the rambling, Zeppelinesque track is nearly enough to give bombast a bad name. Talk about counterrevolutionary. CP