Tom Morello – The Atlas Underground Fire (Album Review)

Tom Morello – The Atlas Underground Fire
Released: October 8th, 2021

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Having burst onto the scene with Rage Against the Machine in 1992 with the incendiary track, ‘Killing in the Name‘, Tom Morello firmly established himself as a guitarist with incredible talent, a unique style and a loaded political view of the world. That song contained some very confrontational lyrics, a pounding rhythm, and a guitar solo that sounded like a record scratching/DJ mix routine.

Tom Morello had arrived and RATM firmly established themselves as one of the premier bands of the alternative music scene of the 90’s. After four albums, RATM burned out acrimoniously, and despite several attempts, have never been able to stand the company of their former lead singer long enough to reform. Didn’t stop Tom though. After the demise of Rage, he and the other members of the band formed Audioslave with the late, great Chris Cornell on vocals. He’s also released solo acoustic albums under the name The Nighwatchman as well as forming Prophets of Rage with Chuck D from Public Enemy which I reviewed right here on WoS (revisit here). He’s also a regular on any music documentary about any seminal band, most recently in the “KISStory” doco.

And Tom Morello has also collaborated with other artists. A lot of other artists.

I am a lifelong Bruce Springsteen fan and was most surprised when I saw that Tom Morello would be his touring guitarist on his 2012-14 world tour. I couldn’t see how Tom’s scratchy guitar fit into the E Street Band’s big rock’n’roll sound. Bruce made it work, fitting Tom within the confines of the enormous touring band that is E Street, but also allowing Morello to shine during songs like ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad‘, letting him rip one of the most amazing solos I’ve ever seen. Check it out if you can.

I’m getting to something here. See, Tom Morello doesn’t just want to sit in one lane. He wants to do many other forms of music as evidenced here on The Atlas Underground Fire. This album is a follow up to his 2018 collaborative collection, The Atlas Underground, and full disclosure, I haven’t heard that record, so I’m only going by my listen here, but judging from the artists and styles present on this current release, Tom is very interested in working with artists from all musical styles. Listening to The Atlas Underground Fire is like constantly changing the dial on your radio, or to keep with current tastes, someone’s Spotify playlist.

The album opens with ‘Harlem Hellfighter‘, and instrumental that sounds like a cross between a DJ mix and guitars. It’s an indication of where this album is heading and I like it. ‘Highway to Hell‘ is of course the cover of the AC/DC song that he performed with Bruce Springsteen and Eddie Vedder at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre on Feb. 26th, 2014 (I was there. It was awesome). It’s not the actual version though. The vocals are taken from that concert, but Tom has re-recorded a backing track that is more in line with the rest of the album. This is either going to lose people or keep them listening. Bring Me The Horizon are the next to collaborate on ‘Get the Party Started‘ and if you’re a fan of the band, then you’ll dig this. Tom personally picked BMTH for his album stating:

“Bring Me The Horizon is really the current standard bearer of hard rock/metal today, and thank God for them for that!”

And who can complain with him? Go on, I dare you! ‘Driving to Texas‘ is a beautiful collab with Phantogram and for me, the best song on the record. Quiet, brooding verses and a big chorus with some beautiful guitar work. An instant fav. Next, Tom goes country. Yes, you read right, country. This will either close the deal for you in liking this record or hating it. ‘The War Inside‘ with Chris Stapleton is square in Nashville country. It is what it is, however, Tom’s guitar is naturally the highlight of this track.

After that, Tom goes straight into the heavily produced pop realm, collaborating with hip-hop artists, producers and DJ’s which has some surprising results. Artists such as grandson, Mike Posner, Damian Marley (one of Bob’s many sons), phem, and Protohype (my other favourite) work their own styles allowing Tom’s musicality as well as their own to shine. And in a strange way, these pop and dance songs don’t deviate from Tom’s political messaging.

The guy can’t just rock out here, there’s always a message lurking in there.

Save Our Souls‘ with Dennis Lyxzen of Refused pretty much is a return to Rage Against the Machine territory here with a short sharp blast of heavy beats, yet it’s the last song, ‘On the Shore of Eternity‘ that I felt was the most political. Working with Palestinian DJ, Sama’ Abdulhadi, this is the longest track on the album with Tom playing some killer guitar over a really cool DJ groove. It’s Abdulhadi’s presence on this album that is the real political statement. Abdulhadi has had gigs shut down in Israel from the military and police as she plays to mainly Palestinian audiences. Some artists have very strong opinions about playing in Israel, and I’m sure Tom Morello is one of them.

So, is the album any good? Well, yes, it is. It’s got strong production and Tom’s guitar playing is exemplary, yet not every song sticks. He’s playing in a lot of different sandpits here, and yes it does feel like someone is playing you the favourite parts of their playlist, but there’s a lot to like here.

Tom Morello – The Atlas Underground Fire tracklisting:

1. Harlem Hellfighter
2. Highway to Hell (featuring Bruce Springsteen and Eddie Vedder)
3. Let’s Get The Party Started (featuring Bring Me The Horizon)
4. Driving to Texas (featuring Phantogram)
5. The War Inside (featuring Chris Stapleton)
6. Hold The Line (featuring grandson)
7. Naraka (featuring Mike Posner)
8. The Achilles List (featuring Damian Marley)
9. Night Witch (featuring phem)
10. Charmed I’m Sure (featuring Protohype)
11. Save Our Souls (featuring Dennis Lyxzén of Refused)
12. On The Shore Of Eternity (featuring Sama’ Abdulhadi)

Rating: 7/10
The Atlas Underground Fire is out Friday, October 15. Pre-order here
Review by Dan Brixey

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