Review | Rage Against the Machine’s seething poetry now sounds like prophecy


As the saying goes, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. For Rage Against the Machine, the violence of history’s rhymes has fueled a fire that now burns anew. Thirty years after the band’s debut, more than 20 years since its last studio album and more than 10 years since the iconoclastic four-piece last joined forces, the rock band brought its urgent, sonic manifesto to Capital One Arena on Tuesday. In a concert landscape marked by cash-grab reunions and mirthless anniversary celebrations, Rage — as it did during its heyday — stood above the rest and proved to be as ferocious and felicitous as ever.

Throughout a 90-minute set, the first performance of a two-night stand in D.C. on their Public Service Announcement Tour, Rage sounded as if no time had passed since the band played arenas regularly. The three members who have remained active, as Audioslave and then as Prophets of Rage, fell right into place, with Tim Commerford’s funk-kissed basslines and Brad Wilk’s powerhouse drumming providing a rhythmic stronghold as Tom Morello squeezed not just riffs but scratches, squeals and sirens from his guitar.

For years, Zack de la Rocha has been the missing piece in the band’s alchemical equation, but even an injury that kept him seated onstage all night could not curtail his vocal attack. While the instrumentation still gets pits circling and heads banging, it is de la Rocha’s lyrics that make Rage seem so vital, especially now.

Heavy with bullets, bombs, caskets and hearses, de la Rocha’s lyrics about resisting capitalism, colonialism and the military- and prison-industrial complexes seem particularly potent these days. Rage warned people to wake up before “woke” was a watchword, and the band’s poetry now reads like prophecy.

In their 1992 track “Killing in the Name,” the refrain, “some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses” took a stand against police brutality and connected it to America’s history of racist violence. In 2022, it still resonates: Some of those that work forces also apparently storm the U.S. Capitol — or, as de la Rocha updated the lyric on Tuesday, “Some of those that burn crosses are the same that hold office.”

Prophets of Rage and the trouble with fighting today’s wars using yesterday’s weapons

Rage has always called out hypocrisy and grappled with the dissonance of being a mainstream band that plays in arenas named after banks. On balance, they’ve done more good than bad. They raised more than $345,000 for local charities through ticket sales to the two D.C. shows, and at the concert, they used the arena jumbotron to broadcast images of D.C. residents killed by police. Accompanying messages made the band’s politics even more explicit. “They have declared perpetual war,” one slide read. Another, in all caps: “We must answer with permanent unrest.”

But beyond the T-shirts emblazoned with “Free Mumia” and “Free Ukraine” or “Black Lives Matter” and “Nazi Lives Don’t Matter,” it was unclear how the capacity crowd — almost uniformly White, male and unmasked — had taken Rage’s sermon from the mosh pit to the street. The band has been begging for revolution for three decades. As de la Rocha asked the crowd, “What better place than here? What better time than now?”

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