To make his first solo album under his own name, guitarist Tom Morello collaborated with talents from all corners of the music world. There are the stars you might expect the founder of the ’90s band Rage Against The Machine to seek out — like Big Boi from Outkast or Marcus Mumford from Mumford and Sons. But the inclusion of high-profile EDM DJs, such as Steve Aoki, is what gives The Atlas Underground its experimental energy.
Morello’s creative process involves smashing musical ideas together, then searching for art in the wreckage. He’s been doing this for decades — first with Rage Against the Machine, then with Audioslave and Prophets of Rage. The collisions usually involve a familiar math: hip-hop beats, plus doomy guitar riffs, plus chanted calls to action equal something galvanizing. Take for example “We Don’t Need You,” featuring Chicago rapper Vic Mensa. It’s got all of Morello’s tricks, plus a dash of drama that’s straight out of club land.
At 54 years old, Morello has only recently began listening to EDM, but he quickly seized on some DJ trade secrets. All these sound-mangling tools — the sudden drops into the abyss, the eruptive, slow-boiling crescendos — can organize the music, give it shape and send it into overdrive.
Each track involves a different cast of characters, and travels in a somewhat different direction. What unifies the album is Morello’s sense of outrage about the current sociopolitical state. The lyrics are inspired by what he calls “social justice ghost stories,” resulting in songs that tackle the treatment of immigrants, income inequality and mental health. There are also several discussions of police violence against young African Americans, most notably on “Lead Poisoning,” as Wu-Tang Clan‘s GZA opens the first verse with the line, “I live in a land of black ropes, white justice.”
It’s easy to be cynical about collaborative records like this in which a veteran surrounds himself with big names to appear relevant. The thing is, though, Morello is not trying for a hit; he’s just chasing new sounds, new upheavals. Not all of it works, but sometimes, from deep within the maelstrom of these experiments, it’s possible to hear glimmers of the future peeking through.