Music News & Reviews

Aftershock festival: Rise Against puts the political back in punk

Rise Against lends greater meaning to the hard-rock fist pump.

The highly political 15-year-old Chicago band, performing Sunday at the Aftershock festival at Sacramento’s Discovery Park, releases hit albums (the latest, “The Black Market,” debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart in July) that follow punk rock’s founding imperative of political rebellion.

Enabling the band’s popular success is a propulsive, pounding sound made accessible to non-hardcore fans by a keen melodic sense and by lead singer Tim McIlrath’s impassioned, not-afraid-to-crack-with-emotion vocals.

“I like to think of Rise Against as kind of this sugar-coated bitter pill,” McIlrath, 35, said in a phone interview. “I think somebody once said, ‘I don’t want your revolution if I can’t dance to it’ [an idea attributed to anarchist Emma Goldman]. All these ideas of revolution and change should be fun, or what’s the point?”

Rise fans rocked out by the millions to the band’s evocative YouTube video for “Make It Stop,” off the 2011 album “Endgame.” The song carries an anti-homophobia message, and its video shows bullied lesbian and gay teens considering suicide. The video ends by flashing the Web address for the It Gets Better Project.

McIlrath, also the band’s primary lyricist and rhythm guitarist, said Rise Against picks its spots in deciding what topics to take on. “We are looking for, ‘Where are the places where we can create friction?’ And not (echo) the things that are already being said by a lot of people.”

In that regard, he had found “there weren’t enough voices from the rock world” addressing homophobia. “The rock world can be very aggro, male-dominated and testosterone-driven.”

Sometimes McIlrath’s lyrics are overt, as in “The Eco-Terrorist in Me,” off the new album. “When business and suffering is one and the same,” he sings. “When laws fail the people, they turn to the flame.”

Other songs are open to interpretation. “I Don’t Want To Be Here Anymore,” also from “Black Market,” could be about a failing romance or job.

The song could be, that is. Its video carries an anti-violence message that includes crime statistics from Chicago and death tolls from the Mexican drug war and other international crises.

McIlrath said that in 15 years he never has encountered less than an abundance of socio-political issues that could be turned into song.

“When you are a band that actively decides to sing about the ills of society, you find that there is a lot of material out there, which is unfortunate,” McIlrath said. “The sad thing is that you don’t have to look very far. I would love for there to be no reason (to sing).”

At festivals such as Aftershock, where the common thread among acts is driving guitars, not political allegiances, Rise Against does not always play to like-minded or even politically actualized rock fans.

At such shows, can McIlrath and his bandmates Joe Principe (bass), Zach Blair (lead guitar) and Brandon Barnes (drums), see themselves opening minds, one bro at a time?

“It would be delusional for me to think that we are getting through to everyone,” McIlrath said. “I am not this curmudgeonly punk (singer) who says, ‘You must listen and then dissect this on Monday.’ ”

The hope, he said, is that “maybe something will sink in” regardless. “Like, ‘I don’t agree with this guy, but I didn’t know that about this.’”

It goes both ways, McIlrath said. Signing with Geffen Records in 2003 and playing in larger venues afforded the previously indie-label Rise Against a wider view of the world.

“I feel like there was a part of me that was living in this small, hardcore punk-rock bubble where we all agree with each other,” McIlrath said. “Until Rise Against got bigger. Now, it will be like, ‘Hey man, I don’t believe what you are saying about this.’

“At first I was kind of confrontational,” when challenged, McIlrath continued. Now, he appreciates that “I have met people from all kinds of walks of life that I don’t think I would have met if I had stayed in my insular punk-rock world. I have learned a lot. … You find ways to not be confrontational, but to say, ‘How can we have some kind of progress?’ ”

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