The Fabled City
3 out of 5 Stars
The Fabled City, the sophomore album from Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, emphasizes lyrics over heavy metal riffs. For an artist who put together the legendary sounds of “Bombtrack” and “Bulls on Parade,” the album marks a significant shift in style as well as identity. Morello’s alias, the Nightwatchman, keeps up with the slow paced country-inspired precedent he set on One Man Revolution, a far cry from his Rage and Audioslave past.
On opener “Rise to Power,” Morello’s throaty baritone voice fills the void left by a lack of guitar. While the lyrics tell an interesting story, the song does not beg to be listened to more than once; its drawn-out chorus strains the ear and there’s very little filler between refrains. On the mysterious “King of Hell,” Morello muses, “Tonight I’m gonna do some things that I never done before / I’m gonna find out what the screamin’s about on the other side of that door.” Unfortunately, the source of the screaming is never revealed, nor is the identity of Hell’s king. The enigmatic verses don’t end there. In “Midnight in the City of Destruction,” the Nightwatchman mentions levees breaking and shackled dogs accompanied by an acoustic riff that brings to mind stories told around a campfire. Morello’s lines in “King of Hell” and “Midnight” are intriguing, but too cryptic.
The lack of an iconic Rage song like “Bullet in the Head” or “Testify” does not bar The Fabled City from serving up a couple inventive songs. The album’s title track refers to the myth of the American dream through smooth poetic rhyme. Morello sings, “I’ve seen the fabled city / its streets are paved with gold. / But an iron fence runs ’round it / and its iron gate is closed.” Morello’s lyrical prowess is evident from the song’s dreary subject matter. The poppy feel from “Night Falls” is more pleasant than the rest of the album, but not even the piano chord beat and upbeat tempo save it from the record’s tragic flaw: monotony. The refrain is tired and the content in between is predictable.
To be fair, The Fabled City is strikingly original; the only place where it falls flat is its repetitiveness. “Rise to Power,” “King of Hell,” “Midnight in the City of Destruction” and “Lazarus Down” all have similar rhyme schemes and melodies. There are subtle differences in between, but they’re discernible only upon hearing the songs three or four times.
The album’s best moments are in Morello’s lyrics. There are no crazy metal riffs in his work this time, but taking their place are masterfully weaved stories set to rhyme and meter. But the Nightwatchman operates in a way that wears out after a couple songs. The style of The Fabled City may not appeal to the same crowd that loved Rage Against the Machine or Audioslave. With a lot less repetition, this release would be solid; however, because of a lack of fresh substance, the product suffers.