“All sounds made by guitar, bass, drums and vocals” declare the liner notes to Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled and now classic 1992 debut album. For those unfamiliar with the band’s revolutionary bombast, this might seem like a fairly straightforward claim, but once you’ve spent some time with the album, the declaration feels nothing short of audacious.
In the early 1990s, Rage’s guitarist, Tom Morello, was on a mission to insert himself into the heart of hip-hop culture. Fuelled by the fire of Run-DMC and Public Enemy, as well as Black Sabbath, Morello went out to replace the sample and the scratch with his six-string. Along the way, he helped create some incendiary and brutal songs that punks, hip-hop heads, anarchists and activists could all get down to.
But as the decade drew to a close, Rage fell apart. Over the next 18 years, Morello collaborated with Run-DMC, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Primus and Public Enemy’s Chuck D to name a few. He also released a few solo albums, but none of this work has drawn much fanfare.
Now he’s back with a new album of collaborations, The Atlas Underground, released under his own name. Days before its release, Morello told Rolling Stone he “wanted to make a record that was unapologetically a guitar album”, but maintained that it had to be rooted in the sonics of 2018, which explains why so much of it is dominated by electronic dance music (EDM).
Morello told the magazine he heard similar qualities in EDM to those he loved in “analog rock’n’roll”, as they both essentially use tension and release to create their impetus, whether on the dance floor or in the mosh pit. He asked: “What if we take your production techniques, but replace your synthesisers with guitars?”
Morello began dispatching “platinum-grade riffs” to various producers he liked, who were suitably impressed, and he slowly pieced together The Atlas Underground. The result is an album that is patchy in parts. The collaborations are not always immediately successful. A handful of tracks come across as album fillers, such as Where It’s At Ain’t What It Is, which features blues musician Gary Clark Jr and pop producer Nico Stadi. Another example is Vigilante Nocturno.
But these are mere quibbles. When Morello’s new recipe delivers, the result is some of the most vital music he has been involved in in almost 20 years.
Roadrunner, the snarling highlight of the album, which features Brooklyn native Leikeli47 on vocals, is the closest The Atlas Underground gets to the old Rage sound, mostly thanks to some stellar delivery from the rapper and some unbelievable guitar work from Morello.
Another highlight is Battle Sirens, for which Morello collaborated with Australian electronic duo Knife Party to create a squelchy monster that gives an exaggerated nod to drum’n’bass.
Morello collaborated with American producer Steve Aoki on the scorching How Long, which features a great vocal performance by Tim McIlrath from Rise Against. Aoki told Rolling Stone he wanted to “go hard” and “bring back the punk and hardcore sound and ideology into electronic music”. Mission accomplished: the result is a grimey ripper caught somewhere between EDM and industrial.
Rabbit’s Revenge sees Big Boi and Killer Mike rapping about violent police in the United States over a fierce beat that came out of Morello’s collaboration with producer Bassnectar. It’s a full-frontal assault, almost robotic in its precision, and its power is a significant part of its appeal. It’s industrial hip-hop for in the time of Black Lives Matter, with Killer Mike spitting, “Fight for my life like a motherfucking Trayvon/ Fight for my life like a motherfucking Mike Brown/ Cause I refuse to be the next nigger shot down.”
The album’s closer, Lead Poisoning, which features Wu Tang Clan’s GZA and RZA, and Atlanta rapper Herobust, also takes on police brutality. “Cops killing kids, about seven a day,” laments Herobust, before GZA references Eric Garner’s 2014 murder and then closes with, “Now I understand why Eazy-E is like, ‘Fuck you’,” referring to N.W.A’s 1988 classic Fuck the Police, a song Rage would cover a decade later.
The album also presents a few curveballs, such as One Nation, featuring the production duo Pretty Lights. It’s a grimey piece of EDM that verges on post-punk, and is a welcome change of pace on an album loaded with riffs and breaks. Another is Find Another Way; featuring British folk star Marcus Mumford.
The Atlas Underground is a sonically brutal collection of songs that feels aimed at both our heads and our feet. In its bringing together of such a diverse collection of collaborators and genres, it feels open-ended, exploring many ideas that could be explored more fully, both musically and lyrically.
It’s probably not going to be your favourite album of 2018, but in 20 years, it’ll still get you thinking, just like those liner notes to Rage’s 1992 debut.