Know Your Tempos: Rage Against the Machine

Posted on July 9, 2023

 rage against the machine

The Fourth of July holiday has come and gone with little fanfare on my website. Last week I was really motivated to rant about cut time, but since I’m such a patriotic person, let’s belatedly commemorate the holiday with some Rage Against the Machine. 

With only three albums out there, Rage Against the Machine is a great candidate for a “Know Your Tempos” post, shamelessly stolen from Todd Bishop. Here’s my boilerplate explanation:

If you ever see some sheet music that says “♩ = 215” and you don’t have a metronome on you, all you need to do is sing a song that you know was recorded at 215. Voilà. You’ll have a pretty good idea of how fast you’re supposed to play. It won’t be as accurate as using a click, but it’s a good trick to have… if you get a decent mental collection of these things, you’ll have a good reference for a variety of tempos. Or tempi. Whatever.

After my tempo adventure, I can say pretty confidently that none of the albums were recorded with a click track. On some songs that’s more obvious than others. For example, “Bombtrack” (the first song off of the first album) opens with a guitar riff around 86 BPM, before slowing down quite dramatically to around 76 BPM when the full band enters about 25 seconds later.  

Like with many bands, the playing gets tighter with each album, although even the last LP (recorded in 1998) doesn’t seem to have used a click. All of Rage Against the Machine’s albums came out in the 90s, which is a grey area for click track usage. I thought clicks had become commonplace by the 80s, but that’s clearly not the case. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the band insisted on an old–school approach to recording these albums. It also wouldn’t surprise me if these were all recorded onto tape.

Sometimes I wonder how much a standard metronome influenced recorded music before the era of DAWs since older metronomes have some rather peculiar tempo settings. Imagine I clock a song floating somewhere between like 107 and 109 BPM; a metronome’s tempo markings around this range are usually 104, 108, and 112. Does that mean the song is supposed to be at 108? I’m… not sure. I’m also not sure when digital metronomes became widely available (the kinds that let you pick whatever BPM you want).

So then, here’s a tempo rundown for Rage Against the Machine:

  • “Revolver” (Verse) — 66
  • “Freedom” — 72
  • “Born of a Broken Man” — 74
  • “Fistful of Steel” — 77
  • “Killing In the Name” (Slower Riff/Metric Modulation) — 80
  • “Bulls on Parade” — 84
  • “Year of tha Boomerang” — 86
  • “Born as Ghosts” — 90
  • “People of the Sun” — 94
  • “Settle for Nothing” (Half Time) — 98
  • “War Within a Breath” — 100
  • “Guerrilla Radio” — 104
  • “Vietnow” — 108
  • “Know Your Enemy” (Main Riff) — 116
  • “Testify” — 118
  • “Killing In the Name” (Intro) — 120
  • “Sleep Now in the Fire” — 126
  • “Township Rebellion” — 135
  • “Revolver” (Hook) — 140
  • “Tire Me” — 160

Much like Pink Floyd, Rage Against the Machine doesn’t have a great diversity of tempos. (Although the timekeeping here is a hell of a lot better than those early Floyd records!) Most of the songs are slow, which is a big part of the band’s distinctive, heavy sound. The mean tempo is around 98, while the median is 94. There’s a huge chunk of tunes all between 84 and 90 BPM — the mode is somewhere in there I reckon. 

I know a lot of people are bummed that RATM only released three albums, but I wonder if the band ran its course throughout the 90s. Dare I say it, the songs are a little samey, and it’s not just the tempo. Obviously, the timbre and tone of the tracks are similar, as are the structures and arrangements; pretty much everything starts with a guitar riff and climaxes with frontman Zach de la Rocha screaming a chorus over and over (I believe the poets call it sloganeering).

As I often say: whatever. I’m eternally grateful the band exists. 

BTW, I do know about the fourth and final RATM album Renegades, but I haven’t included it here because it’s all covers and I rarely listen to it. In fact, the band had its first break up by the time that LP was released.

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