Issue #162: Brass Against by Brass Against
May 20, 2019
Released On August 17, 2018
Released By Footnote Records
I got into Rage Against The Machine somewhere around ‘97 or ‘98. I know it was before their third album, The Battle Of Los Angeles, dropped in 1999 because I bought the week it came out. I was soooo excited when it was released. At 13, I had no idea what Zack de la Rocha’s lyrics (or the band, really) were about, but I did love their sound. I was totally a nü-metal kid; I was all-in on that shit. To wit: I helped Limp Bizkit’s Chocolate Starfish go platinum in a week by buying it the day of release. Ugh. (I should point out that I don’t necessarily consider RATM to be a nü-metal band, but they are associated with that scene because their chronology overlaps with the genre’s.) Certainly a big part of my enjoyment of RATM was hearing de la Rocha repeatedly scream “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” and calmly state that “Anger is a gift,” both of which are everything to a tween whose Christian conservative parents shunned this very music.
By the time the band had broken up and Audioslave had formed in its ashes, I was in high school and all-in on post-grunge — a.k.a. “Butt Rock” — so of course I was on board for them, as well. It helped that I was a big Soundgarden fan. Audioslave is a silly name, sure, but I think they caught more flak than they deserved. As for Run The Jewels, I was sold from the very first single. El and Mike seemingly can do no wrong, and as such, RTJ4 is the 2019 album I’m most excited about. And, of course, who doesn’t love Living Colour’s first record? So much fun.
How I came across Brass Against is… well, it’s very On Brand for 2019. Back in March, I was on Spotify and I saw an acquaintance was listening to their personal Discover Weekly playlist. The song that was playing was “Killing In The Name” by a band called Brass Against. I wondered whether it was a Rage cover or an original composition borrowing the title, since I’d never heard of them. I was intrigued so I stopped what I was playing and threw that on. And here we are.
I chose to cover Brass Against this issue for three reasons. The first is nostalgia, something I’ve mentioned and/or discussed multiple times during my tenure at OYR. It’s come up again and again (and again) for me because it’s a powerful thing. It can spit-shine pretty much any memory or experience, which by itself probably makes nostalgia too powerful. I don’t mean that in the ironic sense, but in the “when everything was simpler” sense. There’s something profound about looking back on a mistake and acknowledging it as such, even it is through the lense of some poor musical choices. It’s certainly better than listening to something you know is terrible for its own sake and pretending you’re in on the “joke”.
Second, changing the primary riff delivery system of these songs from guitar to a brass ensemble gives them a stately manner, almost like a soundtrack. It’s as if the album is one long ’70s car case scene. It’s a fun idea and it’s well executed throughout. By de-emphasizing the guitar crunch, the focus is on the lyrical content.
Which brings me to my final reason for picking this record: the political nature of the lyrics. I thought about focusing this piece singularly on the past few years and discussing the continued relevance of these songs, but I decided against it because that wouldn’t be fun to write or read. Despite the eerily germane topics, if you’re as angry as many are about what’s happening around you, you might find some solace or catharsis, however fleeting either may be, within these songs. And that’s more helpful than anything I could put in this space. Or, if you’re tired of the yelling and the otherwise disgusting form that modern American politics has taken, Brass Against have also covered a couple Tool songs. They’re not on this album, but they are pretty neat — just like the band.
Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That
Alt-rock iconoclasts. Musical fusion pioneers. Politically charged whirlwind.
I truly don’t believe Steve Lampiris has precognition. He’s not the reincarnated soul of Nostradamus, his work hasn’t graced the cover of Weekly World News, but he somehow managed, weeks ago, to choose a sadly fitting album for this week’s review. Brass Against is reimagined rage music, all covers from bands like Rage Against The Machine, DJ Shadow, and Living Colour that give a voice to political unrest, a dissatisfaction down at the ground level for nation-wide decisions and laws. Born out of founding members’ upset surrounding the Trump election in 2016, the ten tracks on the album are recognizably cover songs, but in no way are they left at that. The horn section drives the album forward out of country dive bar type covers to a fresh, invigorating perspective, somehow marrying the old-world sound of brass with the confrontational refusal to be silenced tone of the lyrics. There’s an energy there, a revival of these old songs in a time when activists our parents’ ages are seeing these things they fought against come back, when progress younger generations feel they’ve made cracking at the base. Listening in 2019 to the lyrics penned by Living Colour in “Cult Of Personality” resonates more deeply than before. Where RATM songs pumped through headphones had me narrowing my eyes at a disturbed and abusive father, listening to Brass Against’s cover has me aimed much, much higher. In a week where laws in three states aimed specifically at undermining and skirting Roe v. Wade were passed, where a white woman penned the law that another white woman eventually signed into place, where there’s too much evidence for me to write here pointing at the new, nasty version of a cult of personality we’re facing, the band’s creation and production of Brass Against couldn’t be better explained. If our culture is going in such a way to spur albums like this to come out, then cheers, at least, to the impeccable timing of this issue.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
In an earlier review for Off Your Radar, I confessed that I sometimes didn’t feel as though I was tied into what was happening on the YouTube front with respect to emerging artists. As it turns out, this is not entirely true. For some time now, I’ve been a huge fan of a few artists whose work has risen far beyond visual novelty for me. Postmodern Jukebox, the rotating band of jazz musicians led by the ultra-talented Scott Bradlee, the School Of Rock kids who are lucky enough to have parents who support their education into Tool lyrics, Leo Moracchioli, whose mastery of heavy metal nuance allows him to single-handedly transform any cheesy pop song into a one-man metal masterpiece that actually works and, of course, Brass Against, who can make some of the most gentle and benign instruments sound wonderfully harsh and menacing. Until hearing their debut album, you might not realize that a couple of trumpets could sound so intimidating. In the same way that Rage Against The Machine rocked the hip hop world by replacing sampled loops and a typical Amen break with guitar riffs, rock percussion, and aggressively funky basslines, Brass Against take Rage Against The Machine songs and reinterpret them for seriously abused brass instruments — and then some. It has to be said that Sophia Urista’s versatile vocals are one of the most powerful political weapons on this album. Not only can she work her way through some of Maynard James Keenan’s most epic Tool deliveries on other Brass Against singles, but here she manages to pull off a rare thing — that of taking Zach de la Rocha’s heretofore thought unreproducible vocal style to a whole other level. In reading any review of the original Rage Against The Machine catalog, you’ll often see words such as “unmistakable”, “unique,” and “never been repeated.” Anyone who has ever tried to hit that mark from Limp Bizkit to Linkin Park has had to either veer off in their own direction entirely, deny any desire to follow in Rage’s footsteps or risk being slapped with the most damning of labels — “nu metal.” Somehow, Brass Against not only avoids this trap, but they transcend Rage Against The Machine’s original arrangements and offer a fresh new take on ’90s classic political protest songs in an era when the world seems sadly lacking in anti-establishment musical rhetoric. Layer upon layer of brass, woodwinds, and essential guitar riffage create a nuanced and complex arrangement of what were otherwise fairly straightforward tracks. If that isn’t enough, they reinforce the idea of their versatility by throwing down a cover of Run The Jewels’ “Nobody Speak,” one of the freshest hip hop acts and tracks of the last decade. They make it look like it ain’t no thing. And in case you doubted their appreciation for the real classics, Living Colour’s “Cult Of Personality” — another groundbreaking hard rock anthem in its day shows up too with the soulful vocal delivery of Mazz Swift. From curation to execution, Brass Against give new life to classic songs of anger and activism on this debut record at exactly the right time and place. Sure, they’re covers — but heh — somebody’s gotta do something and punk rock has long since let us down.
Darryl Wright (@punksteez)
Lovechild Of The Music & Technology Marriage
I’d like to be the one guy in a festival crowd who knows Brass Against, just to watch people’s confused faces as a large group of musicians takes the stage, most of them holding brass instruments. Then singer Sophia Urista joins them and they launch into something like “Killing In The Name,” the Rage Against The Machine rager, or tear through “Nobody Speak” by Run The Jewels, trombones soaring, tuba and baritone sax grunting, drums furiously trying to keep up. I imagine a stunned silence followed by pandemonium, as their supercharged, bottom heavy attack blasts away any cobwebs in a thousand-mile radius. The band, led by Brad Hammonds on guitar, and drilled tighter than Patton’s battalion, would have people dancing, moshing, fists in the air, chanting the choruses, building up a righteous fury that may just get this bloody country back on track. The only problem with this fantasy is that Brass Against ain’t going to be underground for long — for all I know, I’m already the last guy to find out about them. But if you heard it from OYR first, be sure to thank us later — and play this blistering album on November 3rd, 2020 if you have any hesitation about heading to the voting booth.
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
Giving new depth & power to the classic & frenzied words.
I’ve always felt sort of guilty about not liking Rage Against The Machine. On paper, they’re exactly the sort of band I should adore, but instead I found them irritating. It probably didn’t help that most of the dudes I know that are their biggest fans are assholes, just like Paul Ryan, who don’t seem to grasp that their politics are antithetical to those of the band, but that isn’t entirely it. I don’t mind their sound, and even love their lyrics, but every time they come on, I just grimace and force myself not to make shitty comments. I think it’s Zack’s voice? I don’t know. Anyway, all of that is to say that I’ve seen Brass Against pop up in my recommendations on YouTube and have pointedly not clicked because why would I want to listen to covers of songs I already don’t care much for? I was fucking stupid for never clicking through. Apparently all RATM ever needed to hook me was a full horn section and a righteously angry WoC spitting their lyrics. And I know this album was picked for us to listen to long before the current legislation we’re seeing signed in multiple states regarding the bodily autonomy of women, but I can’t even begin to tell you how cathartic it was to scream “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” along with Sophia Urista. How very much I needed that this week. I screamed along, and cried, and played this for my oldest, and cried some more when it hit me that I was listening to this cover of Audioslave’s “Cochise” on the second anniversary of Chris Cornell’s death, and then I got angry all over again at just how very fucked up things feel right now. And how I am struggling not to be overwhelmed by the hopelessness of it all every single day. I needed this, and while I’m so happy that it exists to fill that space, I find it infuriating that 20+ years after most of these songs were written, we are still fighting for the same bullshit. But I’m not giving up or in. And I hope you won’t, either.
50 Foot Pop Queenie
Politics and brass instruments. It’s like walking up to a roaring campfire and tossing in the can of lighter fluid you used to start it — the combination is nothing short of explosive. My Richmond-based Off Your Radar colleagues know this well, thanks to our beloved No BS! Brass Band and the turn the band’s lyrics took on their 2015 album entitled Brass Knuckles. On tracks like “Act Like You Know” and “Tyrannis,” the veteran ensemble fused their masterful musicianship with powerfully direct lyrics about police brutality and other forms of governmental oppression, and the results were fierce and formidable. I’d use those same words to describe Brass Against’s approach, especially when Sophia Urista is voicing lyrics penned by Zack de la Rocha. And sadly, this is an ideal moment to revisit Rage Against The Machine’s body of work. I remember walking around high school and starting to see classmates and friends wearing t-shirts displaying the Evil Empire artwork. That image of a young, smirking superhero seemed so menacing at the time. It took years for me to engage with Rage’s music, and it took many more years for me to realize what the real menace was — diseased power structures that force those without the protection of privilege to live in a constant state of fear. We’re living in a time that’s historic for all the wrong reasons — one in which “arms warehouses fill as quick as the cells” in the same way they did when those words were first spoken. But the truth is that we should keep the “Guerilla Radio” turned up regardless of who’s in the White House, and Brass Against’s self-titled collection does so inspiringly.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
I’ll admit that when I initially looked at the tracklist to Brass Against, I wasn’t super thrilled to recognize the song titles. Not because I’m anti-covers albums or tribute bands (a term I use loosely because I know that Brass Against wouldn’t categorize themselves as such), but as someone who is only a very casual Rage Against The Machine listener, I wasn’t all that excited to see that the majority of this album is, as the band’s name suggests, heavy on the Rage. But then some terrible things happened this week. Perhaps you’ve read about it in the news. You might be in the middle of several arguments with strangers on Twitter, or with your distant relative and their Facebook friends, about it. There’s been no shortage of awful government decisions made these last few years and sometimes, in my experience at least, Rage filled music is the catalyst some people need to get up and do something — donate to organizations, participate in sit-ins, calling representatives and speaking your mind. And Brass Against supplies exactly that kind of music. These covers don’t deviate too far from the originals in terms of composition other than the obvious replacing of guitar leads with brass instruments, but I think the main focus here should be on the messages and their delivery. It’s alarming how many of Rage Against The Machine’s lyrics still hold up nearly three decades later because they seemed to be so specific about what they were witnessing at the time (whereas a song like “Cult Of Personality” has a more “could be about any celebrity or leader” feel), but then I think that’s exactly why these songs were chosen. It sucks that a line like “some of those who work forces are the same that burn crosses” could be so timeless, but if it’s something that inspires people to fight for even just basic human decency then it’s the kind of lyric that we need.
Dustin Gates (@cmoncheermeup)
Relapsed Pop Culture Junkie
Led by guitarist Brad Hammonds, Brass Against’s approach is fundamentally dynamic & visceral.
What I love about OYR is the joy of putting someone else onto phenomenal music they might’ve never heard. This week’s entry is especially meaningful to me because of my older cousin Joey, and the two groups he put me onto on the same day that changed my life forever. When we were kids, my cousins lived in Richmond, and would often spend weekends with my family in Norfolk so that they had easier access to the Virginia Beach oceanfront — they were surfers. One Saturday in the spring of 1994, as we piled into the back row of my uncle’s trusty Nissan MPV, Joey opened his CD case and handed me two albums that would absolutely blow my mind in succession: Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers and Rage Against The Machine. Now that is one hell of an afternoon for an 11-year-old! Obviously, I wasn’t the only one that these iconic albums had an extreme effect on. The two groups would tour together, and even spawn some incredible cover projects years later. In the spirit of OYR, I would be able to return the favor to my cousin in 2009 when introducing him to El Michels Affair’s stunning Enter The 37th Chamber — a collection of spot-on covers of the most choice Wu-Tang instrumentals. And now I’m excited again to be able to share Brass Against with him in the same vein. It’s a project of the utmost quality. The musicianship is top notch, and the extra seasoning in the form of a brass ensemble puts a welcomed spin on a classic.
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
I can’t think of a single reason why this album wouldn’t enter the mainstream. I hear absolutely no difference between “Killing In The Name” and “Old Town Road,” and it makes no sense to me that one appealed to the masses in America, and the other didn’t. Lovers of Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift really missed out on this one. Okay, I’m done being facetious. I love political music, but unfortunately, the Top 40 does not. Now that I think about it, I suppose that we often associate socially conscious music with the liberal agenda. My newfound awareness of this consistency forces me to correct my earlier statement to, “I love some political music.” I don’t think I would’ve dug this album as much if it’d been forty-odd minutes of Trump praise. I guess that, in theory, it still would’ve been politically conscious. Anyways, I have to give it up to Brass Against, because I’m sure that trying to fuse jazz, rap, and metal leads to some troubled conversations in the studio. Alas, I found the fusion relatively seamless, and I enjoyed the bending of genres. Brass bands aren’t always my favorite, but I love the ways that they incorporate spoken word and popular music forms into their jazz roots. Brass Against takes it one step further on Brass Against, and features a hard rock rhythm section that almost overshadows the horns at times. Regardless, this album makes for an enjoyable listen, and the topics are as relevant as the time of day.
Joel Worford (@joel_worford)
Confused & Confusing Since 1965
There’s always something to be angry about in this world. Always. That’s not to say the “political” news of the past week or so isn’t horrifying. It truly is, and the coming weeks might be even more horrifying as a section of the country tries to sweep it under the rug with apathy and misdirection. But five years ago wasn’t a perfect time either, and five years from now will hardly be perfect. There will always be injustices in the world at some level, and a need for some to speak up against through whatever medium they occupy. Some causes will be more important and timely — like the current obsession to segregate bodily freedom — but ultimately, there will always be a cause and always something that needs your attention. And for that, you need protest music. Anthems to push your cause forward in a way that can’t be ignored. Unfortunately, time is not kindest to the protest song. As the years turn into decades, their meaning is twisted and perverted. An anti-war song becomes a staple for July 4th fireworks display (“Born In The U.S.A.“) and an iconic folk anthem has verses removed so parents are comfortable with a rendition at a fourth-grade play (“This Land Is Your Land“). Rage Against The Machine, despite all their anger and power, have unfortunately found themselves in a similar boat, fodder for conservatives who shield under the hollow libertarian moniker as well as fuel for conspiracy theorists who were radicalized in the mid-to-late 2000s to become far-right sycophants. RATM isn’t to blame though, no more than Bruce Springsteen or Woody Guthrie are. Sure, they’re not perfect, just as any person dead or alive was hardly perfect. But their voice and art are just another victim to sands of time. Luckily for RATM, we have Brass Against, a versatile and ingenious ensemble that’s taken on the charge of modernizing these classics, providing an extra layer to already densely packed musical manifestos. Each cover, even those not associated with RATM, feels vitally fresh, giving new life to protest songs that have long since passed their shelf life of advocacy. And they accomplish this in two very obvious ways. Having a black woman behind these songs is obviously one, and definitely worth highlighting if only for the way the album brazenly begins with “Wake Up,” which features this now blistering line in reference to the Black Panther movement: “Standing with the fury that they had in ’66.” When Zack de la Roca sings that, it’s searing, but when Sophia Urista sings it, it’s galvanizing and almost prophetic. Still, the most rousing part of this album is its sound conversion, transferring hard rock gusto for brass virtue. Doing so gives each of these songs, even the more recent “Nobody Speak,” a timeless appeal. No one can really match the sound of Tim Commerford, Brad Wilk, and Tom Morello, but their sound is also rooted in the modern era, delivered with such force and innovation that it summarily dates it before de la Roca barges in with words. A brass section on the other hand? Well, these instruments and ensembles have been around for hundreds of years, and have persisted even as the electric guitar’s influence has begun to wane. Surely they can propel these songs back into the public consciousness at a time when we need them more than ever. But in ten years from now, when the battles have hopefully been won, I know we’ll still need these songs for something new, probably unforeseen on the horizon. Thanks to Brass Against’s impeccable musical talent and direction, I’m confident these songs will still feel vital and relevant, and give lifeblood to that fight when it most desperately needs it.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou by Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou
Chosen By Davy Jones