For someone who’s regularly considered one of the greatest guitarists of all time, the crux of Rage Against The Machine’s righteousness and a political firebrand in his own right, it doesn’t feel like anyone actually wants a new Tom Morello solo album. There are definitely possible explanations, be they overexposure from Prophets Of Rage, previous solo material under his The Nightwatchman guise largely slipping under the radar, or the fact that the last Audioslave album was twelve years ago, but the lack of buzz surrounding The Atlas Underground feels strangely uncharacteristic for an artist of his standing. At least, it would without the “benefit” of seeing the overloaded featuring cast, spanning genre, quality and decent common sense in a gamut that runs from Rise Against’s Tim McIlrath and the Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA and RZA to Portugal. The Man, and Mumford & Sons’ Marcus Mumford.
Therefore, it’s not really surprising that The Atlas Underground is a total mess, but it’s a little strange to realise that there actually seems to be some semblance of a general idea here. The general overview seems to be Morello trying his hand at EDM, but it’s an effort that not only sees him giving his guitar work some prominence, but also retaining the political backbone that’s formed the basis of virtually all of his material to date. It’s not as though EDM and charged polemics tend to go hand in hand either, and with as disjointed and clumsy as this album is, it’s not hard to see why.
And yet, it’s pleasing to see that the clear standout factor here is Morello himself. There’s always been a lot of unique personality in his clacking guitar playing, but here, it proves surprisingly effective as a baseline for a heavier electronic instrumental; just look at opener Battle Sirens and how well the defined, angular riffs mesh with Knife Party’s thicker, more pronounced drops. He’s really the only constant though, and while the pool of talent is undeniable, too often they’re either dragging their heels to show what they’re really capable of, or paired with other artists that really don’t flatter their abilities. Big Boi and Killer Mike are as eloquent and hard-hitting as you’d expect on the topic of police violence against young black men on Rabbit’s Revenge, as are GZA and RZA on Lead Poisoning, but both cases feel substantially let down by overweight, unmanageable production, be that in the greasy, overweight grind of Bassnectar’s contribution in the former, or Herobust’s brand of dubstep on the latter that feels a good five years out of date. On the other side of the coin, the muted beats and sparse riffs on We Don’t Need You makes for some really potent atmosphere, only for Vic Mensa to fall off the beat and deliver some particularly questionable notions about 9/11 being a hoax, while K.Flay remains the talent and personality vacuum she’s always been on Lucky One.
The fact that a single song can really collate anything cohesive only makes The Atlas Underground even more disjointed, to the point where finding something that does truly work all the way through is worthy of a sigh of relief. The combination of a more forceful, staccato vocal performance from Tim McIlrath against Steve Aoki’s grinding, pulsating EDM beat works remarkably well on How Long, as does Gary Clark Jr.’s soulful, incredibly classic vocal delivery and Nico Stadi’s bubbly, contemporary house on Where It’s At Ain’t What It Is, accented with pianos and chainsaw whirs of all things. These actually work in the way that good EDM collaborations should, and yet far too often this album finds itself pitting lacklustre vocal performances and production with Morello’s guitar work that really could be put to better use. It’s especially noticeable when Portugal. The Man are given a flat, slappy lumber of a beat to do very little with on Every Step That I Take, or the general nothingness surrounding Marcus Mumford on Find Another Way, presumably to match his abilities a singer.
Still, the fact that anyone actually greenlit this thing is a minor miracle in its own right, and with such a ragtag collection of artists and producers, The Atlas Underground was never going to make sense as a full album. But even so, you’d hope that artists of this calibre could deliver a bit more than what they do here, and performances that typically fall well below ultimately prove to be the damning fault that this album was always going to have. At the end of the day though, if you were really going into Tom Morello’s EDM album with higher expections of quality than could be inferred from the phrase “Tom Morello’s EDM album”, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself.
For fans of: Knife Party, Mike Shinoda, Bassnectar
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘The Atlas Underground’ by Tom Morello is out now on BMG Rights Management.