De la Rocha returns with all the rage

Zack de la Rocha "One Day as a Lion" Anti-Records

*** 1/2

Zack de la Rocha has taken his sweet time to return to declaring emergencies. Since the renegade MC left Rage Against the Machine in 2000, he's occupied himself with incomplete collaborations, scant public appearances -- the most visible had him singing folk songs in support of community farmers in South Central L.A. -- and a Rage reunion that's yielded no new material. This semi-retirement made little sense, especially given the political discontent brewing throughout De la Rocha's target audience.

De la Rocha calls it an "exile" on this debut EP from "One Day as a Lion," his project with former Mars Volta drummer Jon Theodore. Its five songs form a 20-minute warning signal that helps explain his silence, if not excuse it.

Wrathful and unyielding, the music pushes Rage's revolutionary essence further into the faces of listeners, eliminating any chance at misinterpreting these calls to arms as mere boogie-down rock.

It suggests that De la Rocha's recent experiments might have been attempts to return to what he'd done in the first place, but more fiercely and without distraction.

Rage is a great political band, but it's also just a great band, delivering the distinctly apolitical Red Bull-cocktail energy release that's been at the heart of arena rock since John Bonham thumped thunder behind Led Zeppelin. Not so with "One Day as a Lion." This band encodes dissent within its very structure. It sounds like Rage, but without any traditional rock-style relief.

Theodore's drumming is skittish and sharp, forming hostile tangles with De la Rocha's lyrics, causing an itchy feeling instead of fist-pumping relief. And with no guitar -- though plenty of keyboard that sounds like extremely distorted guitar -- and no bass, this music hits higher in the body than most rock. Neither are there any hip-hop-style samples to provide pleasurable memory triggers. The chaotic here-and-now of vintage Public Enemy is the obvious reference, along with minimalist punk.

De la Rocha lays his lyrics over these desert sound-beds with more invective than ever. "If L.A. were Baghdad, we'd be Iraqi," he declares in the title track. His high voice moving from singsong to harsh command, he re-imagines the ghost of Tom Joad as a 21st century menace in "If You Fear Dying": "I'm the orange jumpsuit that's tailor made. . . . I'm the hole in the pipeline, I'm a roadside bomb."

Elsewhere he declares the Christian God "a homeless assassin" and invokes that Commie classic, "The Internationale."

De la Rocha was never one for conciliatory gestures, but his vitriol on these songs feels more intense than ever. It could be that, in a year when liberals are focusing on turning audacity into hope, calls for blood and fire sound ever riskier. At any rate, it's good to have De la Rocha's killer bark back on the airwaves (or at least on the MP3 blog circuit). One Day as a Lion might not offer a totally new sound, but insurgents tend to be practical. Why reinvent the bomb? The explosion is the point.

--Ann Powers