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A Night Filled With Sounds of Their Rage : Upstart quartet headlines Rock for Choice benefit with music rooted not in peace and love, but in the radicalism of the 1960s.

TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Rage Against the Machine most certainly isn’t a band that is afraid of challenges.

On the “Lollapalooza” tour last summer, the upstart Southern California quartet agreed to take the opening spot on the marathon bill.

That meant playing in the hot afternoon sun, a mood-killer that has neutralized the punch of lots of potent groups over the years.

No problem: Rage’s blend of furious social commentary and mesmerizing ‘90s funk-metal stole the day from such alternative rock heroes as Alice in Chains and Primus, even though they benefited from the coolness and dramatic shadings afforded by the darkness.

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Headlining the sold-out, seven-act Rock for Choice benefit on Thursday night at the Hollywood Palladium, Rage faced an even bigger artistic challenge: following X and Firehose, two of the most prized acts in Los Angeles alternative-rock history.

Again, no problem.

Rage, which has been together just three years, still hasn’t recorded its second Epic album, so it’s too early to put the band in the class of X, a group whose quality and integrity set the tone in the early ‘80s alternative rock scene that also produced such valuable dividends as Los Lobos and the Blasters.

But the Palladium show confirmed that Rage has the ambition and vision to stand as Los Angeles’s most absorbing alternative hard-rock arrival in years--possibly since Jane’s Addiction in the late ‘80s.

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Despite the obvious ham-fisted implications of its name (only Down With the Establishment would be a more literal tag), Rage Against the Machine exhibits considerable individuality and imagination.

At a time in rock when so many groups, from the Spin Doctors to Blind Melon, are wasting our time by recycling the musical earth tones and peace-and-love sentiments associated with the hippie wing of ‘60s rock, Rage’s ideological roots are in ‘60s radicalism.

Rage’s Zack de la Rocha, who combines Chuck D.'s accessibility and fervor as a rapper with Bob Marley’s determination and charisma as a performer, doesn’t just echo the restless but vague alienation that is the rule among today’s new crop of rockers.

The Chicano offers a focus on cultural and social repression that gives his anger more urgency and dimension. In “Take the Power Back,” a highlight Thursday, he attacks Eurocentric education tendencies. Sample outcry: Mother ---- Uncle Sam/Step back/I know who I am.

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His commitment was especially timely at the abortion-rights benefit, which was sponsored by the Feminist Majority Fund and Foundation. Members of the female rock group L7 hosted the concert and David Gunn Jr., the son of slain abortion physician Dr. David Gunn, spoke to the crowd briefly.

But Rage is more than charisma and commentary. In its most intense moments, the band--Timmy C. on bass, Brad Wilk on drums and Tom Morello on guitar--plays with a relentless force that reminds you of grinding machine gears. Yet, there’s a precision in the music that sometimes rivals the symphonic grace of Ministry.

Even when De la Rocha does something that doesn’t connect (his 10-minute recitation of a favorite poem), you admire his adventurousness.

Firehose, the descendants of the legendary Minutemen and, especially, X, which has been reviewed in these pages recently, played with their usual tenacity, though their brief sets seemed too rushed to document their galvanizing edges. This was Rage’s night--and the band didn’t flinch.

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