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Axis of metal 

The unlikely pairing of grunge and rock-rap survivors yields new life -- plus a new forum for activism -- with Audioslave

After a half-decade of tonal apathy, could 2003 mark the return of American rock? In fact, it's starting to look an awful lot like the early '90s.

Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers are gearing up for new tours. Jane's Addiction has regrouped. And after a five-year sabbatical, Perry Farrell just announced the summer rebirth of Lollapalooza, including performances by Queens of the Stone Age, Incubus and Jurassic 5.

Certainly one of the highlights of the Lollapalooza bill is Audioslave, another throwback to more fertile rock eras. Featuring former Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell backed by Tim Commerford, Tom Morello and Brad Wilk of the now-defunct Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave came about after Rage Against the Machine's October 2000 disintegration. Plagued with management problems and infighting, singer Zack de la Rocha parted with the words, "I feel that it is now necessary to leave Rage because our decision-making process has completely failed."

"It was actually a relief," says Rage guitarist Tom Morello. "At the time when Zack left the band, we were faced with the prospect of waiting for him to write, record, release and promote a solo record which, as you can see, has not come out yet. We'd still be waiting around. So it basically freed us. It was really a blessing in disguise. You know, I'm very proud of the work we did with Rage Against the Machine -- we played great shows, made great records. When I hear those jams on the radio, I crank 'em up -- but we're very happy with where we're at right now musically."

Where they're at couldn't have happened without producer Rick Rubin, who has a nose for successful experimentation (he's the guy who got Johnny Cash to record Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage"). While it may seem almost unnatural to drop Cornell's smoldering, personal lyrics against the chaotic, rhythmically charged fireworks of the L.A.-based Rage, matchmaker Rubin recommended that Morello, Commerford and Wilk try to jam with Cornell. The result was an incredible 21 songs written in 19 days, 14 of which appear on the self-titled debut, Audioslave, released last November.

"It was instant chemistry," says Morello. "We wrote and recorded more new music in eight months with Chris Cornell than we did in the previous eight years with Rage Against the Machine. Chris is a great lyricist. He brings a real kind of introspective, dark, existential world-view to the songs. When you combine that with the in-your-face nature of a lot of the music, that's one of the things that makes the band really unique."

In the post-grunge, post-rap-rock era, Audioslave means salvation for diehard Soundgarden and Rage fans, despite some of the harsher criticism the hybrid has received for not living up to the hype. But from the start, Audioslave's two factions agreed it would be different from what either band had done before -- and it would last.

Lyrically, Cornell has evolved since Soundgarden. He brings a bluesier feel to the music, subtly reminiscent of his 1999 solo disc, Euphoria Morning. Meanwhile, Morello's former barrage of funky guitar noise has refined, resulting in more impacting attacks. It's the same energy, but with strategically placed emphasis. There's even acoustic and slide guitar on a few of the tracks. This is clearly not Guerrilla Radio-meets-"Black Hole Sun." While flourishes of the musicians' trademark sounds jump out throughout the disc, Audioslave is new music with new vision from some of the meanest musicians to survive the '90s.

"The band has really jelled, and it's pretty thrilling," says Morello, who just returned from a European tour. Talking about Audioslave's premiere U.S. tour and the debut in Atlanta this week, he adds, "We wanted to play the small venues this first time around, selfishly, to have that experience for ourselves. We didn't want to skip that rung on the rock ladder. One of the things that's been a little surprising is the age of the people in the audience -- you know, people who were not at [Soundgarden's 1992] Badmotorfinger tour, but who have discovered Audioslave through [the singles] 'Cochise' and 'Like a Stone.'"

While fans who have come to associate the Rage sound with politically charged lyrics, aside from "Cochise" (which references the 19th- century Apache resistance leader), Audioslave is vacant of any political overtones. These days, rather than channeling his political energies directly into the music, Morello -- an outspoken anti-war, anti-racism activist -- is mixing politics and music through his new organization, Axis of Justice (www.axisofjustice.org). Together with singer Serj Tankian of System of a Down, Morello formed Axis of Justice as a traveling installation which began touring last year with Ozzfest.

"Heavy metal music is often maligned for being apolitical, and the kids being very apathetic," says Morello. "When we sent the Axis of Justice installation out on Ozzfest, we had a tremendous response. And that was one of the things that really motivated us to continue to push the boundaries."

With a word spin of George Bush's "Axis of Evil" rhetoric, Axis of Justice is an extension of the organizing work Morello started during his tenure with Rage Against the Machine. "Through Rage Against the Machine, we'd been sort of telling people to get involved," he says, "This is a way that we're getting involved ourselves."

Besides the traveling installation, the website serves as a nerve-center with alternative news updates and a network of organizations, including links to local outreach groups, message boards and up-to-date information on anti-war demonstrations. Its slogan: "The future is unwritten."

"The installation will come out on Audioslave tours, System of a Down tours, Lollapalooza, Ozzfest," says Morello. "It's an umbrella group. Through the organization, we basically answer the question that's been asked of me over the last 10 years by so many fans: 'How do I get involved?' In our experience with Rage Against the Machine, we've found that there's been a lot of action over the last years, whether it's from anti-globalization demonstrations against the World Bank or the IMF. There's a tremendous number of young people out there trying to get things done. I think there's a huge sleeping giant of young people in America who simply don't know how to plug in. Via Axis of Justice, we're trying to help them do that."

Morello has been involved with anti- corporate campaigns, including a boycott of Taco Bell by Florida tomato pickers. Recently, Morello has taken Axis of Justice to the streets of Santa Monica, to hand out free food after the city passed laws banning private groups and religious organizations from giving food to the homeless. Last month, the organization marched in a Hollywood anti-war demonstration.

"Via our action or inaction," Morello says, "we have an effect on world events. Whether it's in your own school, workplace, community or society at large, people of any age are historical agents. We are not bystanders to history. You can sit at home and let others make the decisions for you, or you can act, vote, get out in the streets and express your opinions."

music@creativeloafing.com

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