Zack De La Rocha, Tom Morello, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk, collectively known as Rage Against the Machine, burst onto the scene in 1992 with an explosive self-titled debut that was equal parts political, personal and wise beyond their years. It helped shape the future of rock music to come during an era that was very much defined by the grunge acts that stole the national spotlight, and Rage didn’t compromise either its message or overwhelming passion in the process.
Tracks on their debut such as “Killing in the Name,” “Settle for Nothing” and “Freedom” remain invigorating and substantive to this day, which can be owed to both the musical prowess of the band as well as the sameness of the conditions the band commented on through their lyrics. And four years later, Rage came through with a second helping of their unrelenting subject matter with a slightly different stylistic backdrop that brought even more grit and creativity.
The album consists of 11 tracks and 46 minutes of runtime, a tighter project than their first. However, Evil Empire doesn’t stray far from the formula that made their debut so effective, incorporating plenty of smooth instrumental breakdowns, funky solos and intense ending sequences of delirious screams from frontman Zack. Choosing only five favorites on a classic album like this is a difficult task, but let’s get to it.
Standout lyrics: “Your savior, my guillotine, crosses, and kerosine” // “The power pendulum swings by the umbilical cord” // “Terror’s the product you push, well I’m a truth addict, aw shit I got a headrush” // “The transmission’s whippin’ our backs, yeah, coming down like bats from Stacey Koon” // “Is all the world jails and churches?”
Perhaps the best verses on the album land on this song, with Zack employing an irresistibly head-bobbing flow and symbolic imagery against Tom Morello’s hip hop-friendly riff. The almost spoken-word chorus sheds clarity on the subject of the track, which is about how the media and other corporate interests manufacture consent for the government’s war-mongering agenda, both directly and indirectly.
4. “Wind Below”
Standout lyrics: “And Disney bought the fantasies and piles of eyes / And ABC’s new thrill rides of trials and lies / And while the gut eaters strain to pull the mud from their mouths / They force our ears to go deaf to the screams in the South”
Featuring a killer riff over the chorus that stimulates every pleasure cell in the brain and a harrowing guitar melody on the bridge that invokes the feeling of falling down a canyon, “Wind Below” is another sharp critique of corporate interests controlling the media and shifting public focus away from instances of abject inhumane cruelty. It also takes shots “at vultures playing markets” who are “sweating their own apocalypse,” meaning specifically the capitalists who influence policy between the US and Latin America.
3. “Without a Face”
Standout lyrics: “Got no card, so I got no soul, life is prison, no parole, no control” // “Cause I jack for Similac, f--- a Cadillac, survive” // “It’s my life for their life, so call it a free trade” // “Maize was all we needed to sustain, now her golden skin burns, insecticide rain” // “I’m raped for the grapes, profits for the bourgeoisie” // “Strangled and mangled, another SS curtain call”
This bass-heavy banger contains by far the most vivid storytelling on the LP, supported by one of the most unique tremolo guitar melodies from Tom Morello. If the lyrics above weren’t clear enough, the song displays the gut-wrenching reality of “border-crossers”, who are disparaged constantly by both political parties for doing what’s necessary for survival. Zack’s father lived these grueling experiences himself, and the moribund lyrics convey the level of emotion Zack has for this subject. Tim Commerford’s bassline is incredibly catchy and prominent on this song, and the only thing preventing the track from appearing higher on the list is a relatively tame ending.
2. “Bulls on Parade”
Standout lyrics: “Weapons, not food, not homes, not shoes / Not need, just feed the war, cannibal animal / I walk the corner to the rubble, that used to be a library, line up to the mind cemetery now / What we don’t know keeps the contracts alive and movin’ / They don’t gotta burn the books, they just remove ‘em”
You knew you would arrive at Rage’s most iconic tune somewhere on this list. An instantly recognizable riff launches this song off into its messages about the military-industrial complex and the hypocrisy of blood-lusting politicians who supposedly value the sanctity of life. The musical composition of this song is just perfect, and it’s hard to imagine a 90s rock playlist without it.
1. “Down Rodeo”
Standout lyrics: “Yeah I’m rollin’ down Rodeo with a shotgun, these people ain’t seen a brown-skinned man since their grandparents bought one” // “Can’t waste a day when the night brings a hearse, so make a move and plead the fifth ‘cause you can’t plead the first” // “They ain’t gonna send us campin’ like they did my man Fred Hampton” // “A thousand years they had the tools, we should be takin’ ‘em, f--- the G-ride, I want the machines that are makin’ ‘em” // “Just a quiet, peaceful dance, for the things we’ll never have”
And yet, there was still a level above Rage’s most iconic tune. “Down Rodeo” is simply that great. Lyrically devastating in all the right ways, musically captivating with both Morello and Commerford’s greatest performances on the album, and singularly holding the power of revolution within a five-minute runtime -- this song just amazes to no end. And it punctuates an album that won’t lose relevance in the minds of those pursuing a better world any time soon.