Tom Morello's Solo Debut Creates Art From Wreckage

Oct 24, 2018
Originally published on October 24, 2018 8:35 pm

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.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

To make his first solo album, Tom Morello of the '90s band Rage Against The Machine collaborated with talents from all over the music world.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOM MORELLO SONG, "WHERE IT'S AT AIN'T WHAT IT IS")

CHANG: The album includes tracks with members of the Wu Tang Clan, as well as unexpected guests like Marcus Mumford of the folk rock band Mumford and Sons, blues guitarist Gary Clark Jr. and electronic DJ Steve Aoki. The album is called "The Atlas Underground." Reviewer Tom Moon says it's alive with experimental energy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE DON'T NEED YOU")

VIC MENSA: (Singing) We don't believe you. We don't believe you. Bite the hand that feeds you. We don't need you. We don't need you. Bite the hand that feeds you.

TOM MOON, BYLINE: Tom Morello's creative process involves smashing musical ideas together, then searching for art in the wreckage. For years, his collisions have followed a basic math - hip-hop beats, doomy guitar riffs, plus chanted calls to action equals something galvanizing. This new track, featuring Chicago rapper Vic Mensa, is a good example.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE DON'T NEED YOU")

MENSA: (Rapping) Don't lie to me. Don't lie to me. The poor go war. There's no war on poverty. Don't lie to me. Don't lie to me. Brown vs. Board never gave us equality.

MOON: It's got all of Morello's tricks, plus a dash of drama that's straight out of club land. Morello is 54 and says he only recently began listening to electronic dance music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW LONG")

TIM MCILRATH: (Singing) And how long.

MOON: But he seized on some DJ trade secrets. Those thundering rolls, slow boiling crescendos and sudden drops into the abyss can give the music shape and send it into overdrive.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW LONG")

MCILRATH: (Singing) And how long.

MOON: This tune features veteran producer and DJ Steve Aoki.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW LONG")

MCILRATH: (Singing) With lights and sound we drown them out. With lights and sound, we drown them out. With lights and sound, we drown them out.

MOON: Each track involves a different cast of characters. What unifies the album is Morello's outrage about the current state of things. The lyrics are inspired by what he calls social justice ghost stories. There are songs that address the treatment of immigrants, income inequality and police violence against African-Americans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEAD POISONING")

GZA: (Rapping) It's called poisoning. I live in a land of black robes, white justice. As long as she wear the blindfold, I can't trust this. I'm imagining what can bring such hate, this phobia or dislike grounds for a debate. Some say it's trigger happy. I say it's lead poisoning, something that's deeply rooted in official embroidering. The difference - we went from water hoses to bullets. But the valve or trigger, just a different figure to pull it. Murdered by the state like the cousin of John the Baptist, as if black youths are nothing but target practice. Overindulgence of power, a monstrous binge. This creates anger and make me want to seek revenge. You invade our protests, guns and heavy armor, riot shields and yielding a badge of dishonor. Just a disguised version of the KKK, cops killing kids, about seven a day.

MOON: 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 Tom Morello isn't really trying for a hit. He's just chasing new upheavals. Not all of it works, but sometimes from deep within the maelstrom of these experiments, you can hear glimmers of possible futures peeking through.

CHANG: The latest from Tom Morello is called "The Atlas Underground." Our reviewer is Tom Moon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LUCKY ONE")

K.FLAY: (Singing) Oh, will you ever make it out, son? Oh, will you ever make it out, son? Are you a sucker or a lucky one? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.