We all have favorite things in our lives and there’s nothing better when two of those things join forces. Think shorts and a hoodie. Think baseball and beer. Think driving and loud music. It’s a beautiful thing when the stars align and two of the things you love most hop in the car together and see where the road takes them.
Me personally, I love big, powerful horn sections. And I love Rage Against the Machine. So let’s talk about Brass Against, a band that combines both.
I know, took me a second to process that unique pairing as well. Of course a second later I was checking out a take on the Rage classic “Killing in the Name” and I was sold.
But who are these people that have brought together two of my favorite things: powerful horn sections and the music of Rage Against the Machine? It’s Brass Against, a 9-piece brass band from the friendly confines of New York City, a collective who not just cover Rage, but Living Colour, Kendrick Lamar and Public Enemy. The Kendrick and Public Enemy covers must be live show exclusives, though. All that is featured on Spotify are Rage covers and “Cult of Personality” by Living Colour.
Led by guitarist Brad Hammonds and fronted on most tunes by the dynamic vocals of Sophia Urista, the band says it’s been driven by “this politically challenging era” to inspire and empower people with music that sounds “inspiring and resonate(s) with people’s emotions, encouraging them to act.” Rage’s songs accomplish both of these goals and the band breathes new life into the songs, revitalizing them for the Trump era. Their choice of non-Rage tunes are just as point, a perfect example being one of the most recent releases, a one-two punch of DJ Shadow & Run the Jewels’ “Nobody Speak” and Rage’s “Bullet in the Head.”
In each one of their versions, whether it’s a Rage tune or “Cult of Personality,” they match the sound and fury of the originals, adding an extra element of swagger and attitude. They provide just enough modifications to both make the originals their own, but also stay true to those iconic songs. Covering an iconic tune always sounds good in theory, but things get dicey when you want to put your own stamp on it. It’s a classic for a reason. You can get in trouble when you forget that. Brass Against thankfully never does.
I love that brass players have fully embraced the stomping power of their instruments, that they can be used for more than just funk or jazz. I saw this band Bonerama last summer and despite having somewhat of an unfortunate name, the band, which is fronted by three dudes playing the trombone, rocked harder than a regular old rock band. The band’s version of “The Ocean” by Led Zeppelin is especially juicy.
The idea of brass-led bands tackling classic rock songs is an idea that has really started to gain some momentum in the past few years. Besides Bonerama and Brass Against, Brownout, an eight-piece latin-inspired group, have released two albums of Black Sabbath covers. Their latest album, Fear of a Brown Planet, is a hard-hitting tribute to Public Enemy. Bands like the Budos Band and Menahan Street Band aren’t doing the classic rock thing, but are still proving that a horn section can go just as heavy as a couple of dudes with guitars can. And let’s not forget Fishbone or the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, bands that were driven by hard-charging horn sections. This is not a new thing, this idea of horn sections getting heavy. But it’s now become a very real thing and an interesting wrinkle in the evolution of rock music.
A few years ago, bass players were starting to get pushed out of the rock game, as duos like the White Stripes, the Black Keys among others, started making waves minus the assistance of someone holding down the low end. It was a minor tragedy. Bass players would survive. But it was also somewhat alarming, a sign of a shift happening underneath the feet of rock purists. Things were changing. The old way of doing things was becoming just that, the old way.
Now the horn players are getting involved, no longer content to sit back and play jazz standards or dole out tight funk tags. They want in on the rock action too.
Friday is still going to be a chore, but possibly less of one with a multi-person horn section jamming out to “Bulls on Parade.”
Now, what the hell do I get my wife this year for Christmas?