First, some context. Last year’s somewhat fleeting Rage Against The Machine reformation achieved two things: one, it made the four-piece a lot of money, something that sat rather uneasily with their pronounced anti-Capitalist rhetoric, and two, it reminded us just how essential a band they were. For those of us who missed the cult around Nirvana it’s Rage who loomed largest over ’90s alternative rock. Indeed, it’s difficult to overstate the impact of their debut album upon a musical landscape still in thrall to the solipsism and self-loathing of grunge.
Even now, numbed as we are by over a decade of flaccid nu-metal and, dear God, Fred Durst, the call-to-arms heralded by the single image of a Buddhist monk aflame resonates with a power rare in music. Here was genuine anger, genuine passion that, naive though the politics might have been, succeeded in engaging a subculture long written off as disaffected in something nearing a cause, eliciting censorious and inept attacks from the US Congress in the process.
When all four members stood naked upon the Reading Festival stage unmoving for the duration of their set, in protest at censorship, no doubt was left that here was a band who stood for more than just music, whose manifesto went further than just pissing off some parents and bagging themselves a Grammy. When the same band last year opted to open their headline set on, again, the Reading stage clad in Guantanamo jumpsuits, it just hammered home how empty so much of our current music is.
Something that reunion did not achieve, though, was to give us anything new, hence the considerable interest surrounding this Tom Morello side project: a collaboration with rapper Boots Riley of The Coup, Street Sweeper Social Club (named after a shotgun with an ammo feeder, if you’re wondering, although that doesn’t make the name any better) promise the nearest thing to a return to the RATM template, interviews attesting to Morello’s desire for a record “heavy enough and funky enough… with the political invective that I enjoy”.
And sure enough, first impressions invoke more than a passing deja vu, familiar tightly-wound riffs coiling around spat vocals and radio-interference guitar breaks, the regulation calls for revolution abounding throughout. Dubiously-titled opener Fight! Smash! Win! – a sterling message for youth, that – sums up the Street Sweeper M.O. nicely, in that it sounds like Bombtrack without being as good. A similar game of guess-the-reference-point can be played with each of the 11 tracks here, which, whilst ensuring a first-rate Friday night, makes for a less-than-revelatory sonic experience.
Of course, half of the bands currently filling out festival bills are trading on someone else’s sound, and at least Tom Morello has something of a claim to do so here. There’s a lot of people who’ve waited patiently through Audioslave to hear him reprise this style, and they won’t be disappointed: the guitar work here is, a few lapses to tired chord sequences aside, pretty impeccable. This is very much his show though, and the rhythm section pales somewhat in the glare: only the drum intro from Shock You Again stands out as memorable, the rest only really keeping time, a far cry from the innovative drum rhythms of The Battle For Los Angeles.
As for the vocals, whilst Riley is a more than competent rapper, his voice complementing Morello’s riffs completely, his lyrics lack the potency, conviction and, well, rage of Zack De La Rocha’s. Whilst the latter’s polemics frequently simplified complex events for the sake of a rousing chorus – see Wake Up – there was at least some content bolstering the aggression: Killing In The Name’s infamous refrain comes off like Chomsky when compared to The Oath’s cast-iron argument for action, “Alright motherfuckers, Fight motherfuckers”, which had me picking up a hammer and heading for the nearest landowner on the first listen.
The touted ‘political invective’ is little more than playground posturing, and we’re way past saturation point for any songs that refer to ‘ghettoes’: any lyricist seeking inspiration for genuine dissent or meaningful diatribe need only read a newspaper, or, heck, look around them.
Sure, it’s unfair to critique a record on how far it mirrors another, but SSSC’s songs rather beckon the comparison: they aren’t so much borrowing from the template as photocopying it. That’s not to say there aren’t some great tracks here – the relentless stomp of Promenade is fantastic, as is first single 100 Little Curses – but be clear: this is not the Rage Against The Machine album that you want it to be, nor are these 11 offerings quite the promised ‘anthems for the revolution’.
And whilst it was unrealistic to expect otherwise of Street Sweeper Social Club, a nagging question remains: with both Morello and Zack De La Rocha (with his One Day As A Lion project) retreading the Rage sound, you can’t help but wonder why they don’t just go back to the source.