Rage Against the Machine, Renegades (2000)
The recent departure of lead vocalist Zack de la Rocha from Rage Against the Machine was unfortunate, but hardly surprising to anyone who’s followed them over their decade-long career. Over the years, the band has proved to be highly combustible both on wax and behind the scenes, the result of having to choose a singular political direction on each recording it makes. Even Renegades, a new album by Rage that tackles a series of cover songs, is marked by aggression. Their cover of “I’m Housin’” suffocates from Zack’s screams of “housin’” you, destroying any subtlety Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith once lent to it; a version of Eric B. and Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend” crumbles beneath Zack latching onto a single lyric — “E-f-f-e-c-t/A smooth operator operating correctly” — and repeating it ad nauseam, destroying Rakim’s unimpeded train of thought that made the original so effective. Not all of Rage’s interpretations are ill-conceived. “Pistol Grip Pump” faithfully transfers Volume 10’s funk classic to a rock context, replacing bass drums with a lurching, guitar-anchored crawl. Meanwhile, the group removes Devo’s “Beautiful World” prototypical new wave sound, revealing it to be a wry comment on the ugliness of modern society. Ironically, it’s that latter track that highlights Renegades central problem. While the title track completely re-imagines Afrika Bambaataa’s “Renegades of Funk,” adding all kinds of layered noise and nuances, too much of Renegades finds the group reading other people’s songs – Rolling Stones “Street Fighting Man,” MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams” – as Rage songs, complete with plenty of sludge, heavy guitar, and unfocused attitude. In attempting to make these songs their own, Rage forget about what made them great in the first place. It’s unfortunate that Renegades will be Rage’s last album with their original lineup, because it’s much more of an experiment gone awry than the cohesive statements the band is accustomed to making. Perhaps fans can take comfort in Tom Morello’s recent analysis of the situation during an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle: “The surprise to me is not that Zack quit the band. The surprise is that someone hasn’t quit sooner.” Instead of carrying on as Rage Against the Machine, the remaining three members formed a new group, Audioslave, with Chris Cornell. Starting in 2007, the original quartet has reunited for lucrative festival performances and the occasional live disc. Epic.