Tom Morello is still raging, but the machine could do with a little oil. The former Rage Against The Machine guitarist’s legacy as a musical titan is, at this stage, almost completely bulletproof. He is, undeniably, one of the most distinctive guitar players of all time, his chucka-chucka style and noose-thick riffs an immediately identifiable signature sound – an achievement that shouldn’t be taken for granted. His new solo album creaks a little, but ultimately gets the job done.
Along with co-conspirator Zach De La Rocha, whose furious rapping style (the man mastered repressed disdain and searing, cathartic release) rode those riffs like a tank roaring over the White House lawn, Morello and the gang released four essential, politicised rap-rock albums between 1992 and 2000. The records (even ‘Renegades’, a bloody covers album!) still sound extraordinary, charged with righteous fury and – crucially – informed political insight. These guys knew their shit, and they weren’t going to stand for any of yours. So Morello has earned the right to experiment a little, to stray from the territory he so clearly owns.
‘The Atlas Underground’, then, is – brace yourself – an EDM record. The album artwork depicts a rhino with wings, soaring through the clouds. Just to be clear about this: Tom Morello’s way past giving a fuck.
Yet he has attracted a starry cast to this most dubious of undertakings: Vic Mensa lends a hand on ‘We Don’t Need You’, Marcus Mumford (!) croons on ‘Find Another Way’ and Big Boi and Killer Mike huff and puff through ‘Rabbit’s Revenge’. The latter collaboration is the most fruitful, recalling Rage and even Prophets of Rage, the rap-rock supergroup Morello formed with Chuck D and Cypress Hill’s B-Real in 2016. A more straight-up rock track than the rest of the record, it’s at it’s most powerful when Mike roars, “Fight for my life like I’m motherfuckin’ Travyon”, a reference to Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager shot dead in Florida in 2012.
Elsewhere, Morello veers towards electro-pop, as on the successful Portugal. The Man feature ‘Every Step That I Take’ , all crunching handclaps and glossy production. The Vic Mensa track is less appealing, as mechanical riffs mesh uneasily with the Chicago rapper’s freeform flow. It sounds like they’re playing on different tracks, a fact that becomes uncomfortably clear when he claims, “Tom Morello and Vic Mensa, we on time with this shit.” It’s like: you’re kind of not, mate. (You might also raise your eyebrows when Mensa raps, “9/11 was a hoax / It was never hijacked / They sold our souls for oil to make us buy it back.” Step away from the Reddit thread, Vic.)
Superstar DJ Steve Aoki and Rise Against frontman Tim McIlrath roar through the confounding EDM rocker ‘How Long’, which is so bizarre you can only admire its chutzpah. This also goes for ‘One Nation, which features EDM producer Pretty Lights; Morello’s lithe guitar riff – which evokes Rage’s 1999 classic ‘The Battle of Los Angeles’ – is offset by sprite-like beats and, later, a noodling, jazzy interlude. ‘Vigilante Nocturno’ is a similarly accomplished team-up with producer Carl Restivo; the head honcho’s looping riff rises up through an old gospel sample, dancing into electronic sounds like an asteroid careering through the stars.
This is Tom Morello: Unfiltered, the work of a rap-rock renegade who answers to no-one, exploring new terrain well into the third decade of his career, an artist unwilling to rest on his legacy.
When Prophets of Rage released their first EP in 2016, Rocha easily outdid them by responding with ‘Digging For Windows’, a singularly brilliant hip-hop banger that stood in a league of its own – weird, stunted production and all. It’s tempting to wonder what he makes of ‘The Atlas Underground’, a similarly unique statement from an outlier rock veteran. With ‘The Atlas Underground’, the gauntlet has been laid down. Reboot the machine.