The first half of the '90s was a pretty awesome time for intense alt rock. That's when (the late) Layne Staley and Alice in Chains unleashed their dope-sick hell on young MTV ears with Dirt; same goes for Nirvana, whose shriek-infested In Utero (which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard, amazingly enough) was a violent and harrowing subversion of Nevermind's catchy, anthemic angst. During a blizzard in the winter of 1993-'94, a buddy and I dropped some acid, killed all the lights in our college-student pad, and cranked that record all night long. It still ranks as one of the most visceral listening experiences I've ever had.
Right up there with those records was Rage Against the Machine's self-titled debut -- now celebrating its 20th anniversary with the XX deluxe-edition reissue. R.A.T.M. were far more political than existentially twisted bands like Alice in Chains and Nirvana, yet their novel sound was no less aggressive and challenging. In fact, two decades later, the record has lost none of its potency, despite having spawned a gazillion nü-metal followers, from Korn and Limp Bizkit to Linkin Park and P.O.D.
But regardless of the record's far-reaching prescience and innovation, it's also in many vital respects a culmination of what came before. Rage Against the Machine's many components -- rap, hard rock, metal, funk and hardcore -- betray the fact that the quartet of Zack de la Rocha, Tom Morello, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk were children of the late '80s, steeped in the wealth of radical music from that period that railed against the conservatives' domination of both American politics and culture. Those were the years when hip-hop morphed from fun and irreverent (Run-D.M.C., LL Cool J) to militant (Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions) and gangsta (N.W.A., Geto Boys). Even the fun-lovin' Beastie Boys possessed a fiercely absurdist streak that felt like a giant middle finger to mainstream society.
While that was going on, hardcore and heavy metal -- both virulently anti-everything, it seemed -- were starting to cross-pollinate, producing myriad hybrids that were far more ferocious than anything either movement had heretofore unleashed. There was thrash (Slayer, Suicidal Tendencies, Anthrax) and groove metal (Pantera), as well as the rise of youth crew/straight edge and what would later be called metalcore (Youth of Today, Gorilla Biscuits). Actually, straight edge is the scene from which de la Rocha's previous band, Inside Out, emerged: In 1990 they released the _No Spiritual Surrender EP on Revelation Records (also home to like-minded outfit Quicksand).
Also active in the late '80s were a handful of pioneering bands that helped lay the groundwork for the Rage aesthetic. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Living Colour, Jane's Addiction, Fishbone and Faith No More all need to be mentioned here, considering each one experimented with a unique permutation of funk and hard rock. But also pivotal were New York outfits Helmet, pioneers of the start/stop riff scheme and drop-D tuning, and Biohazard, arguably the first rapcore group (their debut came out in '90).
There exist numerous other influences (Fugazi, Bad Brains, Black Flag, etc.) that I could go on and on about. But I'll spare you, because there's so much awesome music to explore below. Now get to it!