The Rage Against the Machine Reunion: Some Historical Perspective
Why do you tear them down? Why do you smear their crown?
The people who organize the annual California alt-fest Coachella announced their lineup for this year over the weekend, and the big news was that Rage Against the Machine would be making a big one-time-only reunion after breaking up six years ago, so someone must be getting paid serious money. Even when that band was still together, I always got the impression from interviews that they all really hated each other and that they could never quite negotiate the weird contradictions inherent in being an extreme-lefty band who plays at festivals like Woodstock 99. I guess the reunion means that Zach de la Rocha is finally ready to come out of his basement and that the three guys in Audioslave are getting good and sick of Chris Cornell. If I were the sort of person who travels across the country to stand in the sun and watch alternative bands, I'd be pretty amped about this. I never saw Rage when they were active, so I never got to do the thing where you chant "fuck you I won't do what you tell me" along with everyone else, and that always seemed like a pretty fun thing to do. And it would be a rare opportunity to see one of the great rhythm sections of 90s rock getting a chance to clamp down without worrying about Chris Cornell yowling up front. But the general consensus on the Rage reunion seems to be that they're the one band that made a half-decent case for rap-metal, which isn't quite true. Before Korn and Limp Bizkit came along and fucked everything up for everyone else, it seemed like a pretty forward-thinking, almost courageous idea to combine the two genres. When Rage emerged, they were one of a great many bands trying to fit pieces of the puzzle together and make it work. They had a weirdly visionary but wanky guitarist, an uber-heavy rhythm section, and a rapper who screamed and grunted a lot; in the early 90s, a ton of bands fit that description. Rage made a great first album, a shitty second album, and a pretty good third album. And it's nice to see them all getting back together; Rage was certainly than anything that any of them have done since, Tom Morello's guitar solo on the new Coup album notwithstanding. Still, if the Coachella people are serious about bringing rap-metal back (and given the presence of the Red Hot Chili Peppers on this year's bill, it's a real possibility), I wouldn't mind seeing them throw their money around and convincing a few of Rage's contemporaries to reunite as well. A few examples:
Faith No More. This is the really obvious entry on this list. FNM were precursors of Rage, not contemporaries, and it's probably not quite right to call them rap-metal since they didn't rap all that much and since they also threw in bits and pieces of prog and synthpop and skatepunk and a ton of other stuff into their slop. Because "Epic" was their biggest hit, though, that's always how they'll be remembered. The Real Thing, the first album they recorded with Mike Patton as their singer, absolutely blew my shit apart when I was ten and would probably still rank in my all-time top twenty if I could be bothered to put together an all-time top-twenty. That was the one time they managed to perfectly and fluidly fuse their art-rock sweep with crunchy arena-rock hooks, and all the albums that came afterward are a bit too loopy and self-indulgent for me. Faith No More was also the first band I ever saw live; they opened for Guns N' Roses and Metallica at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC in 1992. I was sitting at the back of the upper deck with my dad, and they looked like specks running around onstage. The only thing I can really remember is how they closed with "Epic" and the entire crowd surged forward and pumped their fists along with the song; this was just a few months before everyone figured out how to mosh, so I'd never get to see something like that happen again. Although Mr. Bungle, Patton's other band, still has its admirers, the only person in the band who's done anything worthwhile since the Faith No More's 1998 breakup is keyboardist Roddy Bottum, who had a couple of nice little power-pop jams with Imperial Teen. Patton still churns out unlistenable Zappa-wank records at a frightening clip, so they'd probably have to throw a huge pile of cash at him to get him to reunite this band. Still, I can't be the only person who'd love to see it happen.
Downset. Downset was a Latino chugga-chugga hardcore band from East L.A., and their frontman rapped about lefty politics and gang violence with the same grunty earnestness. They might be the only band in the history of the universe to thank both Naked Aggression and Mellow Man Ace in their liner notes. Their first album came out around the same time as Rage Against the Machine's first album, and it sounds pretty much exactly the same as Rage's album except maybe not quite as good. When I was thirteen, I totally loved "Anger," their L.A. riot anthem; my fiancee's birthday is April 29, and every time I think of it, I think, "April 29, L.A. swine not guilty / Fools down for the something something Florence and Normandie!" I had no idea Downset still existed until I started writing this entry, but they have a MySpace page and everything, so for all I know they're actually playing Coachella's ninth stage at ten in the morning on Sunday.
Mutha's Day Out. This was a band of teenagers from some rural Arkansas town, and I'm pretty sure they were all big Christians. They somehow landed a major-label contract and released one album in 1993 before breaking up. They had a single about being trapped in a closet more than ten years before R. Kelly. You'd have to be feeling truly charitable to say that what they were doing was even tangentially related to rap, but that's what they were going for, anyway. I totally loved them. The Wikipedia entry on Mutha's Day Out is so weirdly complete that I have to imagine one of the band's members wrote it: "Mutha's Day Out received their big break when they appeared in the 1995 movie Mortal Kombat, during Scene 2, inside the techno bar, while Sonya Blade searches for Kano amongst a large crowd moshing to them."
Bionyx. As far as I know, Onyx and Biohazard only recorded together twice: Biohazard's remix of "Slam" and the titular song from the Judgment Night soundtrack. Both of those songs sound like absolute dogshit today, but it was still a pretty inspired bit of synergy to combine a screamy Queens rap group who talked about moshing with a screamy Brooklyn metal band who talked about beating you up. If someone managed to reunite both of these groups at the same time, I'd watch it.
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