Their eponymous debut may have may have made triple-platinum them counter-cultural must haves, something any teenager could adopt and where as a badge of non-conformity no matter how much of the subject matter was appreciated, but it was a deeply flawed work. While strong tracks were exceptional they were not the rule. By the time of the arrival of the album’s second half the going had become leaden and unrelenting, in this reviewer’s mind for one reason; production. Debates (dull ones) abound about who first or best or absolutely fucking whatever about the fusion of rap and metal but RATM: The Album arrived in the context of Metallica’s ‘black album’ the year before, a sound both typifying and defining the sound of metal in that period.
Everything was thick and compressed so that all sustained notes were of the same volume as the initial strike, the ‘studio sound’ was all, drums resonate for a clinically uncomfortable amount of time with any trace of live playing squashed. All this was during choruses and verses, metal, when looking to be authentic (thanks guys) would replicate the ‘live’ sound by not having a guitar double the bass during solos, Pantera records and RATM’s first are prime examples of the ‘solo shitifier’, a technique by which all inertia and weight could disappear from a track as soon as soon as the guitarist wanted to ‘flash his blade’. This was a particular gripe of mine on RATM’s debut given that all the sound collapsed at the same time a rock guitarist was about to do something interesting for the first time in about a decade. It was claustrophobic in a negative way, it wasn’t making a point it was just what it sounded like, and it sounded like 1992. If your early 90s metal album didn’t sound like your voice the interior of a waste paper bin when worn as a knight’s helmet then something had gone amiss. While RATM’s innovative nature can be argued (see ‘absolutely fucking whatever’ from earlier) it would seem that in this instance they had gone with convention.
When Evil Empire emerged four years later it was clear from the first note that this heavy woolly sound had been banished. It sounded like the guitar was being played in the same room as the drums at the same time, the tone was lively, it sounded like a thing that was actually happened and was captured, it was exciting, it was fresh, it was vital and yet paradoxically it was all of these things because finally someone had gotten the whole ‘just sound loads like Zeppelin’ thing immaculately right. Metal had in the late 80s/early 90s become obsessed with mid range and distortion, this had been seen as the quickest route to the heaviest sound (along with palm muting), Zeppelin were never that heavy in tone, their heavy secret, was to operate as unit. In doing this RATM allowed groove to become a tool as available to them just as it was to the mighty Zeppelin. In the main metal had gone route one distortion and straight-laced fast tight drumming, this gave RATM’s sound of defiance another dimension with which to separate itself before the vocals have even been factored.
Trying to sound like Zeppelin isn’t a new idea so comparing RATM to Aerosmith and Soundgarden is unnecessary (well maybe Soundgarden, maybe) as the vocals completely eschew them. While De La Rocha was not calm on the first album this time he’s Howard Beale in Network, not only because he’s mad as hell and his isn’t going to take it any more is convenient and so hackneyed I have to include it, but his spirit of possession, possibly unhinged, saying dangerous things, lifting the lid on the backstage processes of the modern world, the power and conviction, all the weary last ditch flailing which Peter Finch brought to the role are in the voice this time, the sense that anger can bring about change, that it was believable, that it was well portrayed. The vocals could not have worked if they were not a) well written and b) well delivered. This might seem trite but mainstream music is normally as conservative as RATM aren’t so getting a record featuring songs about the Christian Right’s influence on mainstream media output, social inequality, the US military-industrial complex or the Zapatista revolution then it needs to be both good and cool when you do it. You need conviction, authority and talent, De La Rocha was always this and fiercely so, more Chuck D or KRS-One (yeah, lazy and I’ve already cited Network, but in my defence if I named some other similar rappers you’d just have to Google them) than James Hetfield or Axl Rose of conventional rock, he was able to say more, more angrily and more substantive than rock’s norms of comforting ambiguity.
The Battle for Los Angles (to date their last album proper) would see the band build on this groove and tone it would never be as simple as it was here as Morello moved yet further towards utilising the guitar as technological interface rather than an instrument of pure riff, a device to be used in conjunction Wilk and Commerford. But thankfully the road map marked ‘production’ used on Evil Empire was used again. Maybe it’s just an unnecessary complaint on my part that I feel my favourite album by a particular band is often the one that seems to be either omitted from their collection or the one bought last. Sixteen years on Evil Empire is not only still lyrically relevant but a lively and vital sounding record that perhaps should be held up as a benchmark in the place of its predecessor.