The Atlas Underground Fire (Mom+Pop)
IT HAS NEVER BEEN UNUSUAL for someone listening to Tom Morello’s music to risk whiplash.
Whipping your head and neck (and for the lucky ones, hair) back and forth – whether into a bass bin or just your car speakers – as Morello’s guitar crunched through gears and punched through lights made it highly likely. Hell, Rage Against The Machine and, to a lesser but still vital degree, Audioslave made not doing something like that physically impossible if you had ears attached to a body.
However, Morello’s rock-meets-electronics solo albums, in particular this one, are likely to induce severe whiplash to listeners just sitting in front of desktop speakers. With a slew of international, occasionally famous, often much younger, collaborators – as writers or producers or vocalists – The Atlas Underground Fire is a maelstrom of styles, tones and tempos lighting one side of the road then the other, and back again.
Palestinian producer Sama’ Abdulhadi helps close the album with probably the collection’s best track, a floor-pounding, hypnotically propulsive slab of techno, sprinkled with squelchy synths, called On The Shore Of Eternity, over which Morello’s guitar snakes and twists and loops itself in a dance that nods to Arabic shapes as well as drier metal moves.
At the other end of the recognition and quality spectrum, the rather better known duo of Bruce Springsteen (Morello’s occasional boss when he subs into the E Street Band) and Eddie Vedder, are combative co-vocalists in a meat and potatoes extension of AC/DC’s Highway To Hell whose sole benefit it seems is to bring the star power publicity. Slightly better – only for not being a dull cover – is The War Inside, where country star, Chris Stapleton, is the gruff growler through a quasi-power ballad saved from mediocrity by a signature Morello effects-ringed solo.
Thankfully, pleasures are to be had elsewhere, including the blend of weightlessness and heaviness in Naraka, where light-voiced Mike Posner is cut against by moody soundscapes and doomy rhythms; the slab of desert guitar riffage within the reverberating distorto-machinery set up by producer Protohype in Charmed I’m Sure; and the scratch rhythm/double speed drums/chopped up guitar/highly tweaked (Morello) voice melange of Harlem Hellfighter, a track that could well be a game soundtrack but barrels along with glee.
If you’re wanting more familiar fare, the heavy footed stomps of Let’s Get The Party Started, with British hard rock band Bring Me The Horizon making like a neo-RATM, and Hold The Line, with Canadian cross-genre singer, Grandson, holding hip-hop phrasing and Zack de la Rocha ruggedness in equal measure, distil key Morello influences in familiar but not merely repetitive forms.
As for the whiplash, more back and forths happen when the Damien Marley-assisted dark hip hop vibe of The Achilles List slides into the thicker electro-pop of Night Witch (where phem doesn’t quite carry the necessary melody) or when the low-burbling Driving To Texas seems to be making an early Lorde track (New York duo, Phantogram, standing in for the Kiwi, while Morello plays mood ring guitar around them) pops up between Let’s Get The Party Started and The War Inside.
Variety, and delegating a decent portion of the songwriting to outsiders, mostly works here, and Morello’s playing and imagination remain charged. Was it wise for a man whose career has mostly been lived resisting the simpler lures of the middle of the road to risk undermining his album by choosing two safe and dull options as the public-facing highlights? Hmm.
SPOTIFY: Listen to Tom Morello – The Atlas Underground Fire
APPLE MUSIC: Listen to Tom Morello – The Atlas Underground Fire
A version of this review ran originally in The Sydney Morning Herald.