The three instrumentalists of rap-metal pioneers Rage Against the Machine (guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk) recruit a new singer after Zack de la Rocha leaves them by the wayside for an anticipated solo career … and everybody freaks. Then Chris Cornell, former Soundgarden bellower, is rumored to be said replacement, and everybody freaks some more. Finally, rumor becomes truth as the as-yet-unnamed collaboration signs on for Ozzfest, then drops out after Cornell abruptly quits the project. He just as abruptly rejoins the fold, they toss the name Civilian around (until they discover it’s already being used) and ultimately decide to call themselves Audioslave. And everybody freaks.
Why? Sure, Rage fans had to do some adjusting — de la Rocha’s political rapping has nothing in common with Cornell’s hard-rock howl — but how many of those Rage fans were really in it for the agit-prop? It may have been de la Rocha’s agenda that got Rage into the spotlight, but it was the in-your-face power chords and heavy rhythm section that kept them there. And Soundgarden fans certainly had nothing to worry about, since Cornell was quite at home with words like “power” and “heavy.” In fact, the dual possibilities of Cornell backed by more focused musicians and the Rage guys getting a chance to run wild without the restraint of de la Rocha’s endless stream of lyrics promised something magical.
Well, it ain’t magic, but it can still pack quite a wallop. On a spotty debut, Audioslave delivers full-bodied blues-rock boogie and tortured power-ballads, all enhanced by Rick Rubin’s crisp production. When it rocks, it is near perfect. Songs like “Cochise,” “Gasoline,” “Set It Off” and “Bring Em Back Alive” have all the force and twice the melody of anything Soundgarden or Rage ever did, and “Hypnotize” utilizes a dance rhythm and some vocal effects to achieve something entirely unique for the band’s members. But then there’s the debris: the enticing feedback that begins “Light My Way” doesn’t pay off in the wah-wah sludgefest that follows; “Getaway Car” has impassioned vocals and actual nuance (something Audioslave generally lacks), but it’s still boring ’70s groove-rock; “The Last Remaining Light” is dreary and way too long despite some bluesy noodling by Morello. Roughly half the album proves that the power-ballad is dead, and should stay that way.
So who’s to blame for these mid-tempo atrocities? Surely, you wouldn’t find any power-ballads in Rage’s cannon, and Wilk and Commerford are apparently as tight and chest-rumbling as ever. Likewise, Morello is still a master of his craft, and his otherworldly guitar solos, full of sirens and cat scratches, almost save a song like “What You Are” from its lingering death. That leaves Cornell, who was not above such plodding fare in his Soundgarden days. While he is one of hard rock’s most commanding singers (he actually sounds better as his voice matures), his thunderous shriek and anguished croon become tiresome over the disc’s fourteen tracks, as do his lyrics. He’s successful with succinct statements like, “And there he found a spark to set this fucker off,” but too much of it is stuck in silly gloom ‘n’ doom imagery. (And, boy, does he like fire.) Cornell also has to face the fact that a lot of detrimental shit happened to hard rock since his version of it (not to mention the one that directly inspired him) ruled supreme. What once was headbanging material is damn near pop now. But there’s no hip hop here, and it is refreshing to hear some gut-wrenching rock music without a DJ picking up the slack. Still, it would have been nice to have a little something to freak about.