Tom Morello is 54 now if you can believe that, and he could’ve been basking in retirement years ago like his former Rage Against the Machine bandmate Zack de la Rocha. But we’re happy to report that not only is he better than ever, but he also seems more inspired than ever before, and he’s really great at making electronic music! Now that’s a sentence I never thought I’d be typing about Tom Morello, but by tapping the absolute best in collaborators to craft his new album The Atlas Underground, he got to work with the artists he needed to evolve his sound. Morello was extremely clear with his mission to recruit fellow artists to help him write this record: “The album features artists of diverse genres, ethnicities, ages, and genders and that, in itself, is a statement of these divisive times. The idea was to forge a sonic conspiracy and make a new genre of rock ‘n’ roll,” he said. He accomplished that mission with the help of Knife Party, Vic Mensa, Bassnectar, Steve Aoki, K. Flay, Big Boi, Killer Mike, GZA, RZA, Leikeli47, Portugal. The Man, Mumford and Sons, Whethan, Tim McIlrath, Pretty Lights, Carl Restivo, Herobust, and Nico Stadi.
The Atlas Underground deals with many of the socio-political themes Tom has always been outspoken about, going back to the Rage Against the Machine days. Issues of inequality, police brutality, for-profit prisons, and the institutionalized perpetuation of racism and poverty are still front-page issues in this country just as they were three decades ago when Tom started playing music, and it doesn’t seem like he’s going to shut up about any of it until things actually start to change. On “Rabbit’s Revenge” featuring Big Boi and Killer Mike, made with the help of Bassnectar, victims of extreme police overreach and violence Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Mike Brown, and Trayvon Martin are individually named in a song about what happens when the disempowered people take power back. It ends with the biting lyrics that perfectly set the tone for this album: “This time around the revolution’s televised.” “Vigilante Nocturno” with Carl Restivo, another reclaimed power song about “pimp-slapping the devil to make foes of justice tremble,” boasts a 24-year-old guitar riff left over from Rage’s Evil Empire album sessions that Tom’s been sitting on, waiting for the right time to unleash it. To me, the fact that this is the moment for that beloved riff’s debut tells me this is the album he’s been wanting to make for a long time.
I wish I could put myself in the shoes of an old-school Tom Morello fan who never got into raving, and imagine what I’d think of the album’s opener “Battle Sirens” with Knife Party. At first, it starts with a perfectly Morello-esque guitar part and merciless, building percussion, but when it drops into a Red Hot Chili Peppers-worthy guitar and bass groove followed by a full-blown dubstep drop, my head might’ve exploded. But coming from the electronic music world, this album makes perfect sense. And as it unfurls, Tom Morello proves he can excel in genres we’ve never heard him tackle before. He perfectly marries Rage riffs with bass-fueled, electronic hip-hop on the aforementioned “Rabbit’s Revenge,” and “Every Step That I Take” featuring Portugal. The Man is proper indie rock, with a snarl to the production that gives it an AWOLNation or Imagine Dragons-level punch, minus the cheese factor. “How Long” with Steve Aoki has a more retro, Ozzy Osbourne-era rock element to the guitar groove that builds and drops into the most frenetic song on the album, a straight up electro-clash dance track with screaming, punk rock vocals from Rise Against’s Tim Ilrath. “Where It’s At Ain’t What It Is” featuring Gary Clarke Jr. and Nico Stadi has a funkified, hard-hitting disco beat layered with industrial rock sounds and it slaps!
There’s plenty of tracks that serve as a reminder of Tom’s musical roots; his track with K. Flay, “Lucky,” feels like a female-fronted Rage song and it’s positively brilliant. On “Roadrunner,” Leikeli47 lays down in-your-face rap verses, asserting dominance over the merciless drums and distorted guitar sounds running wild throughout this unhinged tune. On the opposite end of The Atlas Underground‘s sonic spectrum, we hear “Find Another Way” with Marcus Mumford, a hypnotic, hyper-cinematic rock ballad that could be an alt-radio hit, holding its own next to any Audioslave single. And the very last track featuring GZA and RZA of Wu Tang Clan with production courtesy of Herobust is the perfect marriage of all the album’s sound, unapologetic lyrics, a proper hip-hop beat backed by guitars, and eventually the release of controlled chaos as a monstrous dubstep drop hits. The album’s end feels crafted to leave us energized, the fuel to continue the fight to restore sanity and basic human decency.
Tom divulged many of the stories behind these collaborations in a phenomenal interview with the Washington Post you can’t miss if you’re a fan, and quite a few of those behind-the-scenes anecdotes involved taking his two youngest sons to school. After Tom heard her song “Blood In The Cut” on the radio while driving with them, he completely freaked out. “I pulled the car over. I got on my phone and I texted my manager: ‘Find me K. Flay. I don’t know if it’s a man, a woman, a band, an orchestra — whatever K. Flay is I need to be in business with it. And it turns out that she’s fantastic.” While working with Marcus Mumford, the two would link up after the morning school drop-off on Tom’s end in Los Angeles and once Marcus put his baby to sleep in the UK, the two FaceTimed with acoustic guitars to work on “Find Another Way” together. Those little stories about how the album came together paint a picture of Tom as a pretty normal guy, fully committed to dad life, who never let his fire of creativity and activism go out. I personally really appreciate the inspiration, so thanks, Tom! Embark upon your voyage through The Atlas Underground below.