Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The Nightwatchman - World Wide Rebel Songs

Last year Rage Against The Machine frontman Zach de la Rocha sparked feverish anticipation when he announced to a Chilean newspaper that the rebel-rousing rap metallers would release a new album "in the northern hemisphere summer" of 2011. But no more was said about it. Still, Tom Morello - he of the bombastic funky riffs you could sing along to - has kept himself busy with various side projects. Not least among these is his Nightwatchman folky alter ego - who steps out the shadow of Dylan, Cash, Guthrie and the rest, to find his revolutionary new voice on this, his third album.

The Nightwatchman first emerged in the mid-noughties, as Morello served time in Audioslave - an often ponderous and generally 'apolitical' band. His first release under this nom de guerre was One Man Revolution, which boiled down to Morello, his guitar, the odd harmonica, and some one-liners. While the righteous anger at the crimes of Bush and co. was palpable, the songwriter cut as lonely a figure as the title suggested, and the vengeful Old Testament God of Morello's Catholic background often stood in for the massed ranks of the proletariat. Aside from the odd new instrument and guest appearance here and there, The Fabled City trod similar ground.

Now, with the musical engine room of his Street Sweeper Social Club becoming 'The Freedom Fighters Orchestra' for this record, The Nightwatchman feels like a fully-rounded project for the first time. And it's clear that the beginnings of large-scale worldwide rebellion have had a big effect on Morello's songwriting, with every song emphasising the urgency that It Begins Tonight, and it is us ('the 99%' - as the Wall Street occupiers have it) against them (the banksters, big business, and their political lackeys).

The Nightwatchman entertaining Wisconsin demonstrators in February
As a poet, Morello can't be compared to a de la Rocha or his SSSC bandmate Boots Riley, but then he doesn't even try to pull off their flourish. Instead, he's great at crafting often metaphorical verses followed by simple choruses which thousands could sing along with on the picket lines, complete with clenched fists punching the air. And that is the aim; The Nightwatchman can packed into the back of whatever Morello drives, and taken to whichever protest or fundraiser he chooses. Perhaps most famously, he played for the huge Wisconsin demos against pay cuts and effective union de-recognition for public sector workers, and this experience directly inspired closer Union Town.

Besides Wisconsin, this tour of rebel hotspots takes in Mexico (The Dogs of Tijuana), colonial Kenya (Facing Mount Kenya), and Iraq (Stray Bullets). Other highlights include the gospel-tinged rock of Speak and Make Lightning, the struggle-on-despite-it-all straight up folk balladry of Save the Hammer for the Man, and the title track itself, which seems to invoke the Sandinista!-era spirit of Morello's teen inspirations The Clash.

Conservatives and metal snobs will hate it, of course. But those who newly have "a mission of our own" might just love it. And that - of course - is the point. For me, it's a strong album of the year contender.
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