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CD Review: Rage Against the Machine, “Rage Against the Machine XX (20th Anniversary Box)”

Rage Against the Machine XX box

Trying to listen to a classic, groundbreaking album like Rage Against the Machine with fresh ears two decades after its release can often pose a bit of a challenge. On the one hand, you probably remember the first time you heard a Tom Morello solo and wondered, “Wait – is this a keyboard? How did he do that?” To an entire generation of guitarists, that sound is as important as “Purple Haze” or “Eruption” may have been to the previous ones. Unfortunately, just like Van Halen I begat an army of melody-deficient two-hand tappers or Ten paved the way for Scott Stapp and his man-voiced acolytes, Rage Against the Machine‘s legacy includes Limp Bizkit or Papa Roach’s adolescent whining, an Ayn Rand-loving Wisconsin Representative who clearly pays no attention to lyrics and a legion of lowest-common-denominator rap-rock followers whose output still lines the dollar bins of the few used records stores left standing.

Revisiting the album in 2012, it remains hard to deny the instant appeal of the fusion of Zack de la Rocha’s lazer-guided attacks on the political and economic establishments with Morello’s guitar pyrotechnics and the all-around sonic mayhem that the band creates over these 53 minutes. From the ominous opening of “Bombtrack” to the closing seconds of “Freedom”, Rage Against the Machine never slow down or lighten up. De la Rocha’s rhymes rely on direct, didactic anger and repetition more than on subtle, poetic metaphors or humor – his only moment of lyrical playfulness comes eight songs in (“Steppin’ into the jam and I’m slammin’ like Shaquille”) – but the songs never turn into po-faced lectures, in large part because of the palpable sense of injustice and righteous rage (no pun intended) that permeate his desperate calls to action. Morello answers those words with a variety of effects and unusual sounds to create dense and unsettling backdrops, “sampling” classic rock riffs (the Edgar Winter Group’s “Frankenstein” kicks off “Know Your Enemy”) and unleashing exhilarating solos on “Killing in the Name”, “Bullet in the Head”, “Know Your Enemy” or “Fistful of Steel”, often sounding like nothing less than the Bomb Squad or Jam Master Jay fooling around with lost Jeff Beck and Ron Asheton guitar tracks. Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk are no slouches either, with Commerford’s pulsating basslines and Wilk’s heavy, Bonhamesque drumming essential parts of Rage Against the Machine’s assault, particularly on “Bullet in the Head”.

Of course, you might be wondering at this point whether you should invest in this reissue, and in particular the deluxe 2CD/2DVD/LP version (which retails for $129.98, but can be found for less from the usual sources). The answer – especially if you are a hardcore fan of the group – is a qualified yes.

The first CD, which contains the original album and adds three live b-sides (missing b-sides include three more live performances and a remix of “Bullet in the Head”), still packs a considerable punch despite some of the dynamics falling victim in the remastering to the loudness wars (the LP, also included in the box, is a thick, flat 180-gram pressing that sounds very good). The second CD will be mostly of interest to longtime fans who will no longer have to scour the Internet for a copy of the band’s self-released demo tape, which contained early versions of seven album tracks, two more that appeared as “Killing in the Name” b-sides and three songs that were left off the major label debut. Even remastered, the album tracks generally sound less polished and unfinished, and there is no real case to be made that any one of the leftovers should have made the final track listing: the best parts were eventually repurposed and the two better ones were officially released, but de la Rocha had not quite found his voice (on “Mindset’s A Threat”, where he sounds like Snow covering the Red Hot Chili Peppers, quite literally) and his rapping is a bit tentative and unfocused.

Finally, the two DVDs feature nearly five hours of material from various stages of the band’s career that amount to an updated version of the 1997 VHS compilation: included are all of the group’s music videos, as well as over 90 minutes of live clips from 1992 to 1997. In addition, the DVDs offer two complete concerts: the first public performance by an embryonic Rage Against the Machine in front of a largely indifferent Cal State crowd in the fall of 1991, and “The Battle of Britain”, a beautifully shot high-definition document of the group’s explosive, triumphant June 2010 live set in London’s Finsbury Park following a successful campaign to make “Killing in the Name” the 2009 Christmas Number One in the British singles chart. It provides conclusive evidence that laying dormant for much of the ’00s did nothing to dampen the band’s live power.

Despite all this material, the beautifully packaged box feels like something of a missed opportunity: for the newcomer, the liner notes offer little context for the music beyond several photos and a 2-page essay from Public Enemy’s Chuck D; for the completist, the DVDs come tantalizingly close to offering a career-spanning anthology, yet the live clips inexplicably stop in 1997. Quibbling aside, everyone should own a copy of this seminal album in one form or another (it is also available as a single CD with the three bonus b-sides and a 2CD/DVD set featuring three promo clips and three performance videos), and the hardcore Rage Against the Machine fan on your Christmas list will likely be thrilled to find this box under the tree on December 25th.