Tom Morello’s ‘Atlas Underground’ Brings Guitar Back to Pop Music
At the 2013 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Los Angeles, I spoke with Tom Morello on the red carpet, and asked when he'd release his next album. "Actually, I'm going home after this and working on it," he responded.
Of course, life gets in the way. Bruce Springsteen invited Morello to play guitar on an E Street Band tour (Morello also collaborated with the New Jersey legend on 2012's Wrecking Ball and 2014's High Hopes). Then, he reunited with his Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave bandmates Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk in Prophets of Rage, which also featured Public Enemy's Chuck D and DJ Lord and Cypress Hill's B-Real; they've released an EP, an album and a single and toured extensively.
So, Morello has taken his time with his solo album The Atlas Underground, but it's more than worth the wait. Collaborating with a bevy of guest artists from EDM, hip-hop, Top 40 and rock, the album feels quintessentially 2018-ish. Most music fans try a little of everything, and Morello's album reflects this. He is fearless in his experimentation. The album comes off like an angrier, more urgent version of Santana's 1999 classic Supernatural. That may sound like a strange comparison, but bear with me here: Supernatural saw Santana, 30 years removed from his band's debut, return to the center of pop culture thanks to collaborations with some of the biggest stars of the era.
The Atlas Underground comes 26 years after the first Rage Against the Machine album (and 29 years after Morello's recorded debut, Lock Up's Something Bitchin' This Way Comes). It comes in an era when the mainstream music media's narrative is that guitar-based rock is no longer relevant. Instead of fighting that narrative, Morello attempts to infiltrate pop music with both his mind-blowing guitar playing and socially conscious lyrics. Working with rock-friendly EDM producers and some of pop's more thoughtful vocalists (along with some legendary hip-hop MCs) he makes a strong play to get his music and message in front of newer and younger audiences.
As is the case with albums with different vocalists, Atlas Underground sometimes feels like more of a mixtape than an album; but it's 2018, and mixtapes and Spotify playlists are as relevant as full albums. As a playlist, there are no misses here; there are no songs to avoid, but there are definitely some highlights.
"Battle Sirens," featuring Knife Party, is a ready-for-an-action film instrumental, not unlike his 2001 collaboration with the Crystal Method, "Name of the Game." "Lucky One," featuring K. Flay (who had a hit with "Blood in the Cut," and who has also worked with Mike Shinoda) may be too abrasive for Top 40 radio. The song ponders "if you're a sucker or a lucky one," depending on whether you were "born in a white tux" or "dead on arrival." With any luck, K. Flay will help Morello get some radio play, while Morello may turn his rock fans onto this talented young singer/songwriter.
"Every Step That I Take," co-written with Matt Shultz of Cage the Elephant and featuring Whethan and Portugal.The Man, actually is getting airtime on alternative radio. The lyrics feel haunted by Morello's former bandmate Chris Cornell. Portugal's John Gourley sings, "Everywhere I look / It's right in front of my face / One foot in the shadows / One foot on the brakes." The chilling kicker comes next: "One foot towards the gallows / Where it's quiet and safe." Appropriately, Morello is partnering with SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education) to promote the song.
"Find Another Way," featuring Mumford & Sons' Marcus Mumford, is even more mournful. Morello generally seems more comfortable expressing rage at the pain of the less fortunate; here, his guitar playing feels wrapped in his own sorrow. What did Mumford have in mind when he wrote the lyrics, "You told me you would find another way"? It doesn't matter. When he sings that line, and Morello responds with guitar leads that ring with echoes of Audioslave, it feels like a hymn to a fallen icon, a fallen bandmate, a fallen friend.
On the other end of the emotional spectrum is "Where It's At Ain't What It Is," featuring Gary Clark Jr. You'd think that the song would be filled with guitar fireworks, but there's surprisingly little six-string wizardry in this piano-driven modern-disco number. It would be interesting to hear outtakes of Morello and Clark actually jamming together, but taken on its own, this is a great party jam. If you're looking to hear something a bit more familiar, there's "Roadrunner," featuring a female MC named Leikeli47. Her delivery recalls that of Zack de la Rocha; this sounds closer to a Rage Against the Machine song than the songs on the Prophets of Rage album.
The album's highlight might be Morello's collaboration with Big Boi of OutKast, Killer Mike from Run the Jewels and Bassnectar on the track "Rabbit's Revenge." Big Boi, one of the most underrated MCs in hip-hop, sounds furious on this track about police brutality in the African-American community: "Let's turn the tables like some brawlers in a bar fight / They killed Tamir Rice in plain sight and said it was alright / Now the people taking it to the streets because they're uptight / Now let the tear gas fly while the canines bite." Killer Mike comes in hot also, "I feel that dirty offer reaching for his ray gun / I grab his pepper spray, find his eye, spray some / Fight for my life like a mother fucking Trayvon / Fight for my life like a mother fucking Mike Brown / 'Cause I refuse to be the next n***a shot down"
Nearly as good is "Lead Poisoning" featuring the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA and GZA, which covers similar ground as "Rabbit's Revenge" (the "lead" refers to lead in bullets). On "Roadrunner," "Rabbit's Revenge" and "Lead Poisoning," Morello stays out of the way, his guitar adding urgency to the lyrics, but he never overpowers the MCs or the message.
Morello has said that he wanted this album to be the "Hendrix of now." That's tough to live up to: Hendrix was a once-in-an-eon artist. But as great as he was as a guitarist, he was always about serving the songs first, and that's why his career endures, nearly 50 years after his death. Similarly, this album transcends the "guitar-hero-solo-album" category, because the songs are so strong and are so well served by the production. Hopefully, some of the songs -- the ones about depression and police brutality -- will sound dated one day, when we've learned to deal with those issues. Odds are, that won't happen for a long time, and these songs will still matter.
(In the interest of full disclosure: I hosted Tom's Atlas Underground event in Boston; it was not a paid assignment).
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