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Up Against the Wall : You want raw, unfiltered extremism? You got it. Rage Against the Machine is back, with all pistons firing. The band members once thought they'd be too political for anyone to care. They were wrong.

POP MUSIC

April 14, 1996|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello is one rock 'n' roll guitarist whose chief idol was not Jimi Hendrix and who didn't spend most of his late teens in smoke-filled clubs honing his craft. His early heroes were more along the lines of Che Guevara and Malcolm X, and his apprenticeship, if you will, was four years in Harvard classrooms.

Along with the equally aggressive social agenda of Rage lead singer and rapper Zack de la Rocha, Morello's background gives the Los Angeles quartet an individuality and drive that make it one of the most exciting forces in '90s rock--and one of the most surprising success stories.

"My ambition was to be a revolutionary," the slender Morello says while sitting in a conference room at Epic Records, which will release "Evil Empire," the group's long-awaited second album, on Tuesday. (See review, Page 70.)

"But how do you become a revolutionary, especially when you are living in a sleepy little place like Libertyville, Ill.?" he says. "I thought the best way to arm myself was to get the best education I could."

Instead of following his Harvard roommates into medicine and investment banking, Morello--whose father was active in the struggle for independence in Kenya in the '60s--decided to spread his militant views through his private passion, rock music.

Morello, now 31, moved to Los Angeles after graduating with honors in social studies in 1986 and tried to put together a band by placing ads in local music papers. But it was the era of Guns N' Roses and glam-rock in Los Angeles, so there was little interest in a group dealing with socialist politics.

It wasn't until 1991 that Rage Against the Machine was formed.

From the start, the group--which also includes Tim Bob on bass and Brad Wilk on drums--served up a blistering blend of furious social commentary and funk, metal and hip-hop musical textures that are woven together so aggressively that they seem to virtually explode on record and, especially, onstage.

That force wowed record company talent scouts around town as well as rock audiences. The group's 1992 debut album, "Rage Against the Machine," has sold more than 1 million albums in this country and another 2 million around the world.

The question surrounding Rage is whether its audience was stimulated by the band's politics or simply seduced by the power of its grooves. One test may be the sales reaction to the new album.

Dozens of bands can approximate the intensity of Rage, which means they could have picked up part of the group's audience in the four years since the debut album. But no other major-label attraction infuses its music with such a fervent message. If the band is connecting on both levels, the Rage audience will probably be intact and sales could again be impressive.

Robert Haber, president and publisher of CMJ's New Music Report, a trade journal that tracks alternative and college rock, believes that "Evil Empire" could hit big.

"With the explosion of alternative commercial radio, a lot of bands seem to just be going for a hit sound, but Rage seems to be staying true to their ideals," he says. "I think audiences will respond to that genuineness."

If so, Rage could have a significant influence on rock for the rest of the decade.

Once an artist successfully stakes out new territory, record companies race to find others with similar direction. In this case, Rage's success would be good news for artists that are also in the tradition of the Clash and other passionate political outfits.

Even if you don't agree with the specifics of Rage's themes and the group's tales of social oppression and government corruption, it is healthy for pop music to reassert some of its old sociopolitical relevance.

"I never thought that we would sell a record," Morello says. "I thought the politics would be too alienating, too extreme. But I'm proud the music is extreme, the politics are extreme. When you open your eyes to what is going on in this world, you realize that a sort of moderate medicine is no good to cure an extreme illness.

"There are lots of bands who support some very noble causes, like abortion rights, environmental issues and things like that. But we are talking about a bigger overhauling of society. To me, the reaction to our music is a reason for hope."

*

One of the most liberating rock moments in recent memory was Rage Against the Machine's mesmerizing performances as the opening act on the 1993 Lollapalooza tour.

As soon as De la Rocha went into the first number in the midafternoon sun, one could sense that Rage was something special. Combining Chuck D.'s accessibility and power as a rapper with Bob Marley's determination as a performer, De la Rocha didn't just recycle the themes of restless alienation that populate modern rock. This rage was deeper, more specific.

In songs such as "Take the Power Back," De la Rocha, whose dreadlocks make him look like a young Marley, focuses on cultural repression, including the education system:

*

Mother [expletive] Uncle Sam

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