Wednesday, December 3, 2008
ONE DAY AS A LION
Here's a review of the amazing One Day As A Lion EP, the new duo featuring Zack de la Rocha and former Mars Volta drummer Jon Theodore, that was turned into Popmatters.com but never ran. Enjoy!
ONE DAY AS A LION
One Day As A Lion EP (Anti-Epitaph)
A few years back, a friend of mine played guitar in a Rage Against The Machine tribute band called People of the Sun.
They were based out of the Hudson Valley area of New York, but played all over the Northeast, building up a strong following on the tribute circuit, packing bars everywhere they went. And while they were a success, the whole experience, according to my friend, turned him off to Rage Against The Machine. The reason being were the crowds, which were not, in fact, the legions of revolution-minded nonconformists and punk rockers who made up a grand portion of Rage’s fanbase, but in fact the unintended demographic of their listeners: white, upper middle-class fraternity guys who you’d expect to see at a Hootie and the Blowfish concert rather than anything that had to do with Rage Against The Machine. According to my friend, seeing a bunch of white baseball caps floating above the audience and screaming “Fuck you! I won’t do what you tell me!” in unison freaked him out some, wondering if they even got the point of the songs. In retrospect, the experience of listening to their music was never the same again for him.
The same goes for me as well. The amount of young Republicans and rich, white frat boys who cite Rage as one of their favorite bands is astonishing, especially considering the group stands for everything they are not (well, with the exception of guitarist Tom Morello’s tendency to drive around in a gas-guzzling SUV, from what the gossip mongers say). So much, in fact, that when were slated to play outside the Republican National Convention recently (which never happened after police prohibited them from performing after the band failed to obtain a permit, resulting in frontman Zack De La Rocha singing two Rage songs from a bullhorn into the crowd outside the State Capitol in St. Paul, MN on Tuesday Sept. 2), some were led to believe they were actually going to play on the same stage that graced the spiteful rhetoric of Sarah Palin and Rudy Guliani, who seemed to have delivered their speeches with the same tone of aggression that Rage reserved for their most visceral compositions.
I can almost guarantee you that for Zack de la Rocha, the only instance that frat boys and the Republicans had appeared in his mind when he was penning the lyrics to their three albums’ worth of songs was the ways by which he can deliver the messages that will help bring their imperialistic ways down. Yet instead of being the anti-establishment anthem Zack intended back in 1991, “Killing In The Name” can be heard at Yankee Stadium alongside “Y.M.C.A.” and “Cotton-Eyed Joe” blasted over the PA speakers in order to get the fans dancing between innings. The first Rage Against The Machine album has most likely provided the soundtrack to countless date rapes in college dormitories and frat houses all over the country throughout the last two decades. Not to mention the score to countless numbers of hateful, violent attacks on those deemed inferior to the aggressor from dimwitted troglodytes who failed to recognize the band’s mosh pit manifestos as attacks against them, not their victims. And, of course, seeing their music help give birth to such alpha-dog posers like Limp Bizkit and Crazytown, who used Rage’s rap-rock hybrid as a springboard for their sorry excuses for the once-mighty fusion of sounds, was surely played into account as well.
Certainly these observances and rhetorical back-firings of band’s initial intentions to be a sort of MC5 or Clash for a new generation ran through De La Rocha’s mind over the last ten years, prompting him to split from Rage initially and impose himself in the exile of a variety of recording studios, where he would work with everyone from El-P to DJ Shadow to Roni Size to DJ Premier on a solo album that still has yet to see the light of day, not to mention a near double-LP’s worth of material he recorded with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails that also remains on the shelf as well. All while seeing his former bandmates hook up with former Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell to form Audioslave and release three albums of mediocre radio rock that made no bones about catering to the more pragmatic, horizontal dimension of Rage’s initial fanbase.
So when word got out that Rage Against The Machine reunited in 2007 to play a bunch of festivals, including Coachella and the New Orleans Voodoo Music Experience, and then tour that summer as part of the Rock The Bells Festival alongside the likes of the Wu-Tang Clan and Cypress Hill, fans were indeed in shock and awe to see the band bounce back from a near-decade long hiatus in such powerful form and continue to tour throughout 2008, playing Lollapalooza this summer in Chicago’s Grant Park and, of course, controversial stops outside both the 2008 Republican and Democratic National Conventions just recently. Regardless of how you feel about their population of fraternity-minded fans or the band members’ post-RATM activity (especially Morello’s dreadfully droll solo project, The Nightwatchman), there is no denying that hearing the raw power of a Rage Against The Machine show in these crucial times of political turmoil is most certainly welcoming to the ears of anyone who truly believes in their sonic manifesto. And the beauty of it all is, now that the hype has cleared away and the rap-metal genre has weeded out the meek of its lot, Rage stand along and appears stronger in its convictions than ever beforer. And regardless of if their classic tracks are played at keggers or sports arenas, they still don’t give a fuck, as they will convey their message by any means necessary no matter if you are educating yourself on their words or just dragging your knuckles along to their primal polyrhythms.
But perhaps even more so than seeing RATM grace the stage once again, it’s just great to have Zack back and the fiery passion he brings to the voice of national activism, pulling no punches during his spoken-word interludes between Rage classics like "Bulls on Parade" and "Bombtrack", regardless of who he offends in the process:
"A good friend of ours said that if the same laws were applied to U.S. presidents as were applied to the Nazis after World War II that every single one of them, every last rich white one of them from Truman on would have been hung to death and shot," he defiantly proclaimed at their first reunion show at Coachella, citing the writings of political philosopher Noam Chomsky. "And this current administration is no exception. They should be hung, and tried, and shot."
Hell, even the Democrats are not safe from de la Rocha's ire, as noted during his on-stage rant during the instrumental bridge for their song "Wake Up" at this year's Lollapalooza:
“[Democrats] were supposed to step up and be our voice in congress and they turned their backs on us. They turned their backs on the workers. They turned their backs on the soldiers. They got right behind Bush lock step and got this country into another sick war,” he announced that day in Grant Park, right in the backyard of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. “Now we know brother Obama. We know brother Obama. But I tell you what, if he comes to power come November and he doesn't start pulling troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq, I know a lot of people who are gonna stand up and burn down every office of every Senator that doesn't do his job…there is a generation of young black and latino brothers and sisters that are gonna force everyone in this country to make a decision very soon about what side they're going to stand on. And they're a generation of kids who don't give a fuck about national politics. They care about bread. They care about water. They care about housing and they care about justice. And they ain't gonna fucking stand for any of that shit.”
And while the group itself has made no plans to return to the studio at press time, Rage fans were certainly in for a pleasant surprise in July of 2008, when Zack De La Rocha quietly released an EP of new material with his new two-man group with former Mars Volta drummer John Theodore under the moniker One Day As A Lion.
Named after the iconic 1970 black-and-white photograph by Chicano shutterbug George Rodriguez of a piece of graffiti reading “It’s better to live one day as a lion, than a thousand years as a lamb”, the duo’s debut EP is everything you would expect from Zack — radical poetics backed by dirty, colossal beats. And surprisingly, for a duo, de la Rocha and Theodore more than make up for a lack of guitarist and bassist, or even a DJ for that matter, in their sound. In fact, the lack of guitar heroics or any other unnecessary sonic pyrotechnics beyond the masterful drumming of Theodore (whose talent behind the kit is arguably far better than that of Rage drummer Brad Wilk’s), actually seems to come off as a freeing element for the music.
While Theodore supplies the beat, Zack takes cues from his time spent in the studio with Trent Reznor on the art of torturing a keyboard, hammering out fuzzed-out, guttural low-tone bass drones, dub-inspired echo blasts and electrified skronks and howls that cake the caustic rhythms with the urgency of an air raid siren.
Additionally, de la Rocha actually sings here, lending a melodic-yet-harsh toasting hybrid to tracks like “Ocean View” and “If You Fear Dying” on the choruses. It’s a little off-putting at first, considering the guy is certainly no singer. But the conviction by which he levies his attempts is purely respectable, like Woody Guthrie armed with a Molotov cocktail. Especially on “If You Fear Dying”, the EP’s strongest track that finds Zack leaving his heart in Venezuela while questioning why Americans “would ever let a few white Christians shape our tomorrow” and declaring himself a lyrical “roadside bomb” over an explosive ragga-inflected riddim on par with the most visceral Rage anthem.
Elsewhere, tracks like “Wild International” and “Last Letter” find de la Rocha flipping up his flow a bit with slight nods to the cadence and wordplay of such indie hip-hop heroes as El-P and Mos Def as he spits political rhetoric that warrants repeated listens, while “Ocean View” seems to make a call-to-arms nod to the plights of such victims of police violence as Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell with lines like, “The water main’s cut off/panic hit the manor of the mayor/who’s soft word hit the streets that the cops got off.” Meanwhile, “Wild International” calls it right out the gate, summing up the war in Iraq in one line: “They say that in war/The truth be the first casualty.”
The only disappointment about One Day As A Lion is that it clocks in at 20 minutes, leaving the listener hungry for more. But in its brief time frame and minimalistic means exists a roaring call to arms that blasts your skull louder than a thousand copies of Evil Empire played simultaneously. One thing is for sure, this outstanding EP will most certainly separate the true fans of Zack’s word from the ones who can’t hear past the rhythm. And if you ever hear one of these tracks blasting through the PA at your local baseball stadium, it means that shit got taken over by revolutionaries. This right here is the true definition of raging against the machine, something those frat boys and neo-cons who fake the funk in the mosh pit can never even begin to understand. –Ron Hart
YouTube video of One Day As A Lion’s “Wild International”