Album Review: Tom Morello - 'The Atlas Underground'

14 October 2018 | 4:58 pm | Alex Sievers
Originally Appeared In

A prophet of unrealized ambition.

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Tom Morello’s ‘The Atlas Underground’ is basically one big collaboration piece. It’s a record where the Audioslave and Rage Against The Machine co-founder has collaborated with artists he respects and loves. This ranges from K.Flay, Vic Mensa, and Steve Aoki, to Portugal. The Man, Rise Against's Tim McIlrath, and the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA and GZA, among others. All meaning this album skirts rock, pop, electronica, rap, hip-hop and more. It's definitely varied in sound, and dare I say it, even ambitious and original too. But that's just not enough of a saving grace. For while that wider vision and noble intent in the themes are present, it's just not followed through on with the actual songs, as this is a rather weird record.

It's all caught in limbo between the respective styles and voices of its guests, but also ensuring that Tom Morello - y'know, the guy who's album this is - is performing too. As such, it's torn between towing Tom's expected sound and trying to be genuinely creative with the featured artists that guest on the 12 songs. It honestly seems like Tom felt he couldn't carry a record alone, so he brought others in to hopefully boost and invigorate the release; looking to bridge the "divides" between these various genres and create some kind of musical unity. When it's mostly done the opposite and lessened the impact. 'The Atlas Underground' tires way too hard to be this transformative rock album; splicing typical Morello riffs between hip-hop beats, house music, a variety of different vocal styles ranging from rap, soul and pop, and dubstep flourishes. It's not as messy as it sounds on paper, but excluding a few tracks, it ain't great either.

Tom is the record's backbone and he seldom foregoes his usual style. Which is fine. From sliding up the guitar body like its a turntable, focusing on groove and rhythm first, Rage-era riffage, implementing whammy shenanigans, to how he approaches his solos and melodic licks - it's all classic Tom. The guitars on 'Lucky One', 'Rabbit's Revenge' and 'Vigilante Nocturno', as just three examples, all feature said expected Tom Morello flair. Yet the guy's style isn't as jaw-dropping as it was twenty or even ten years ago. While there's the odd moment where Tom somewhat strays from his usual territory (the chorus-tinged intro of 'Battle Sirens', the screaming solo in 'Every Step That I Take'), it’s kinda sad to see him largely reaching back into his old bag of tricks with ‘The Atlas Underground’. What with much of the guitars merely sounding like repurposed Rage riffs or old Audioslave ideas that never saw the light of day.

Whether you love or loathe Rage, Prophets, NightwatchmanAudioslave, or Tom himself, it's a fact that he's one of the most influential players of the 90s. His impact on rock music and the guitar cannot be understated. This is a man who has written not just some of my favourite riffs, but some of the most memorable guitar parts in all of rock. ‘Killing In The Name’, ‘Cochise’, ‘Bulls On Parade’, ‘Sleep Now In The Fire’, and ‘People Of The Sun’ – the list just fuckin' goes on. Hence why much of his contributions to this album bother me. As I wonder if one of the greats has just rested on his laurels; hoping, nay praying that all the big names attached to this record will make up for it. But, for the most part, they don't. He's incorporated new sounds to his style, yes, but he's then not actually adapted his own play-style. For who was once such an innovative guitarist, and while this LP isn't exactly uninspired sounding, it all still lands middle-of-the-road. Despite how goddamned hard it tries not to be. 

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[caption id="attachment_1104366" align="aligncenter" width="760"] Tom Morello, 2018. [/caption]

When you think about Tom Morello, there are certain political ideas that hitch along with those thoughts. Revolution, people power, injustice, racial profiling, police brutality, deceitful politicians, history, war, and freedom. Which is exactly what 'The Atlas Underground' deals in lyrically. With each of these dozen songs addressing real-world matters happening on-ground in America, alongside some discussions of suicide and mental illness on 'Every Step That I Take' as well. Now, I'm not one of those cognitive dissonant-dullards who thinks that art and politics can under NO circumstances ever merge - quite the opposite, in fact. Art and music are often at their most interesting and meaningful when political discussions infuse the songwriting and lyricism. And I even agree with a lot of Tom's views because I'm a dirty left-wing bastard myself, but I'm left mostly uninspired by the actual musical material here.

'Rabbit's Revenge', an overly-polished hip-hop song laden with repetitive riffs, talks about protesting racism and violence from law enforcement against black communities; saying how "the revolution will be televised". Yet it doesn't sound angry or rage-fueled. That's not me making some shitty pun towards past bands Tom's been apart of. No, I mention that because for an activist like Tom who wants to challenge the status quo, this song only challenges me to turn it all off quicker. Here, Killer Mike (Run The Jewels) details the racially motivated prejudice that black people in America can face from the police. And I'm not disputing that: this is absolutely an important discussion that shouldn't be swept under the rug. But goddamnit, I don't think Killer Mike's ever sounded this bored on a recording before. He sounds more authentic on the song he and EL-P did for the Venom soundtrack, for fuck's sake! Even with the song's idea being that the 'rabbit' now has 'the gun' and is fighting back - a prey-becoming-predator metaphor - it lacks the sonic balls to work. If this is the energy the supposed revolution will have, I sure as shit don't wanna dance to it. I'll just put on 'Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)' instead.

Album closer ‘Lead Poisoning’ features GZA and RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan. Though it ends up sounding like a watered-down Run The Jewels cut with weak vocal flows more than anything else. Lyrically, don't get it confused. This isn't a racist track, merely one talking about the deep-seated racism that exists the U.S. right now. However, if this was someone's first ever listening experience of Wu-Tang's work, I seriously doubt it'd make them want to deep dive back into their discography. After PharmaBro fuckwit, Martin Shkreli, snagged up that one-of-a-kind Wu-Tang LP, ‘Once Upon a Time in Shaolin’, at least we’ll still have... this. For better and for worse. Mostly for worse, what with those shrill "rise!" vocal hooks that are just super cheesy. Also, producer Herobust's dated dubstep sound design would've worked amazingly well a couple years ago, but it just seems like a mere throwback now.

The sharp, little, high-register whammy licks near the end of 'We Don't Need You' are laughingly pathetic too. Sounding like Tom had a decent idea for something bigger and cooler but just gave up halfway through finishing it; ending the song on a low-note where it leaves you hanging, but not in a good way. Elsewhere, the talented K.Flay lends her incredible voice to the radio-rock of ‘Lucky One’. The songstress queen K inarguably has one of the most distinctive voices in alt-pop music today with a powerful range and a truly sexy timbre. I enjoy so much of her original work, but on 'Lucky One', maybe due to the mixing or the effects used, she sounds so comatose. However, she's still somehow the best part, as I don't feel the goods were brought from Tom. Which is a trend you may notice with 'The Atlas Underground'; an imbalance in how it feels like the guests brought so much more to the table than the record's own star. Hell, sometimes you even forget that you're listening to what's supposed to be a Tom Morello album. Again, it often feels stale and imbalanced.

Don't be fooled, there are some still some pretty decent tracks. For instance, opener ‘Battle Sirens’ is a well-edited, well-produced song. Knife Party's cleanly chopped up beats, guitars and vocalizations mesh so well together, especially with the added synth wobbles and scales layered over the top. The momentum established from these melodies and flow is pretty superb, honestly. That build up from 1:07 and the riffy, trap drop at 1:30 are so well done. I just wish that that modulated guitar riff in the intro was built upon even more so. Still, that's a small nitpick against what is a banging cut; one of the record's most successful experimentations. Even if the riff sounds oddly familiar to Red Hot Chilli Peppers' 'Can't Stop'.

How Long’ features Steve Aoki’s aggressive, mid-range synth bass and EDM drops, as well as Rise Against’s Tim Mcllrath’s unmistakable vocals driving the piece forward. All mixed in amongst some typical Morello riffage. Look, I know what you're thinking: "that all sounds terrible, Alex". And hey, when I saw the tracklisting and saw those names attached to the song, I thought it would too. Yet it doesn't suck; it's actually one of the most interesting compositions of the entire record. Tim's vocals sound like his usual Rise Against phrasing but I'll be damned if he doesn't have one of the smoothest voices in punk rock. (Plus, it's really nice to hear Tim scream again, given where that band has headed on their last couple records). And Steve's production and arrangement is how you'd expect, yet it's just so big, bouncy and aggro in the mix; injecting real energy and movement into the album.

The locked-in beats, swirling effects, and glossy keys of One Nation’, with instrumentals/production from Pretty Lights, isn't half bad either. It's easily the most experimental piece on the album, with Tom sprinkling some metal guitar runs and added tonal effects atop his usual riffs. ‘Where It’s At Ain’t What It Is’ sounds like a lost Bruno Mars take with Gary Clark Jr. leading the soulful vocal charge, but I ain’t complaining! It’s fun, it’s funky, and that lead synth line from Nico Stadi could cut through fuckin' steel. Rapper Leikeli47 drops pure heat on ‘Roadrunner’ and she absolutely makes the track work. She saves it, pretty much! Which is exactly what the driving bass lines of 'Find Another Way' do respectively, all while Marcus Mumford's heart-rendering, emotive vocal performances elevate said track ever higher. I'm not a Mumford & Sons fan, but the guy's killed it there.

Tom Morello is really trying to make positive changes with the platform he has by partnering with organizations like Colour Of Change and Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) for this album. That young man writing game-changing riffs for the debut Rage Against The Machine LP back in '92, who wanted to make a better world, hasn't gone anywhere in terms of ideologies. Yet when people think about this new album, it probably won't be because it's a politically radical listen that's inspiring real change. It'll be remembered as an oddball collaboration full of interesting ideas; some that worked, and some that really didn't. The message is great, but much of the music isn't. It should be illegal for this many big names to appear on a single LP and the final results end up like this. Which is what makes 'The Atlas Underground' so frustrating. For all the solid moments that stand tall, there are limbless cuts that falter and fall hard.

The other thing I'm left with is this: who is this album for? Aged, close-minded rock fans won't want it because of the hip-hop, pop and electronica, and I doubt most Tom Morello fans will clammer for it either. The album's sampled-drums, glitchy wobbles, poppy synth melodies and distorted dubstep arrives years too late. If Tom had dropped a bass-boosted emo-rap LP, with heftier trap influences, it'd fit the current climate much better. (I also think that'd be a horrendous abomination, like a "woke" Lil Peep or XXXTentacion merged with Rage riffs). Hell, even him working with that kick-ass cover band, Brass Against, to create some original material would've worked so much better than this. At the very least though, 'The Atlas Underground' is still better than that Prophets Of Rage debut full-length from 2017. But then again, most things in general are better than that accursed thing so take that with a grain of salt.

01. Battle Sirens (feat. Knife Party)

02. Rabbit’s Revenge (feat. Bassnectar, Big Boi, and Killer Mike)

03. Every Step That I Take (feat. Portugal. The Man and Whethan)

04. We Don’t Need You (feat. Vic Mensa)

05. Find Another Way (feat. Marcus Mumford)

06. How Long (feat. Steve Aoki and Tim McIlrath)

07. Lucky One (feat. K.Flay)

08. One Nation (feat. Pretty Lights)

09. Vigilante Nocturno (feat. Carl Restivo)

10. Where It’s At Ain’t What It Is (feat. Gary Clark Jr. and Nico Stadi)

11. Roadrunner (feat. Leikeli47)

12. Lead Poisoning (feat. GZA, RZA, and Herobust)

'The Atlas Underground' is out now.