Few artists can lay claim to truly reinterpreting the guitar. There are perhaps three truly iconic moments: Ike Turner on Rocket 88. Hendrix’s Woodstock ’69 set. Tom Morello’s visionary creativity. Taking the role of DJ as opposed to typical lead guitarist, he truly revolutionised the way the world viewed its favourite six-string. The man is intrinsically talented, and with that talent comes and equal level of ambition. It’s only natural then that we would get The Atlas Underground: A collaborative album with the great and good of the worlds of EDM, rap and R&B. It’s not the first time a traditionally rock artist has tried this of course. The most notable, and divisive example is Korn’s The Path of Totality. The nu-Metal progenitors teamed up with a handful of dubstep artists du jour, releasing to polarising reception. Has Morello figured out the secret formula? Is The Atlas Underground a work of genius, or a misguided 54 year old trying to work his way into the zeitgeist once again?
The album opens with its weakest track, Battle Sirens (feat. Knife Party). It begins with Morello’s unmistakable guitar, well produced and tonally exciting as ever, before the main riff kicks in. At this point, warning bells should start ringing. It sounds like it’s threatening to turn into Can’t Stop by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. No one wants that. Especially not from Tom. Following this, Knife Party’s part in the equation begins, and the guitars seemingly stop. Whether it’s purely a mixing error, or Mr. Morello went out to get a Fairtrade coffee is unknown, but this song’s disparate genre blending is a great summation of the album. Morello has been reduced to a guest spot on the record he’s released!
There are moments of brilliance on offer. Killer Mike and Big Boi provide verses with typically excellent flow and lyricism on Rabbit’s Revenge. Find Another Way works as a blending experiment, with Marcus Mumford giving a fantastic performance, as does K.Flay on Lucky One. The latter of which features a real Rage Against the Machine riff as an opener that, once again, quickly disappears into the æther. There’s a real cynicism about this record. Jumping from his usual fare is admirable, but the choices here feel like an underhanded play for the mainstream.
The only other example of great guitar work on display is on Vigilante Nocturno. It has the swagger and groove of Sleep Now in the Fire. Hardly surprising as Morello revealed it is a leftover riff from the Evil Empire writing session in an interview with AP News. You may start to see a pattern throughout this album. Morello is almost nowhere to be seen. A real shame given the impact and legacy he has had throughout his career, and leaves the album as just another pop release without any real punch or gall.
This album will certainly satisfy pop fans, and may well convert the more casual listener to dig deeper into Tom’s past works. If you’re coming at this from the perspective of a Rage, Audioslave or Prophets of Rage fan, you will be sorely disappointed. An ambitious failure.