Release Date: 15 Oct 2021
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No, you're not stuck in a time loop. The Atlas Underground was Tom Morello's debut solo album,a collaborative effort in 2018 that featured him grooving with an array of diverse guests. The Atlas Underground Fire is a thematic sequel that does much the same thing but with this new array of diverse guests names that I have to assume have a higher profile given that 've actually heard of some of them. There's Bruce Springsteen for a start, lending his voice alongside Eddie Vedder's to a cover of Highway to Hell. Yes, that one. My first discovery here is that Morello toured with the E Street Band.
It's not a bad cover but it's an unnecessary one and hardly the highlight of the album. What I was surprised to find is that my favourite songs here were far from what Morello is known for, though his patented liquid guitar does make a few notable appearances. He provides a searing solo on my pick for the standout, which is Driving to Texas, featuring Phantogram, a New York dream pop duo whom I'd not previously heard of. Between the multi-instrumental talents of Josh Carter and the soothing and seductive voice of Sarah Barthel, this reminded me of the fascinating Dark Night of the Soul album by Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse.
I liked Naraka wth Mike Posner too, which starts out as soft vocal electronic pop but brings edges into play, slow ones but dark and ominous ones. It's an interesting choice, because Morello surely can't be on more than about half the track and he doesn't do much at all until late on. I'd be more likely to listen to Damian Marley than Mike Posner, but both their songs work here. Marley is on a louder and more abrasive number called The Achilles List which, like much of this album plays with distortion and electronica, but with that recognisable voice revelling in it.
Beyond the fact that, like most collaborative albums, this is a mixed bag with some songs shining far brighter than others, my biggest problem with it is that it's very deliberately overproduced. I like a lot of the grooves and vibes here, but there's so much post-production decoration that only served to distract me from them. It's there from the outset on a brief opener, Harlem Hellfighter, that's a sort of electronic rock mashup, pitting cutesy agaisnt distorted, but it's omnipresent here with every song maxing out the spectrum at some point and deliberate glitches everywhere. My least favourite song, Charmed I'm Sure, doesn't do anything else.
And what that means is that, even more than the recent Santana collaborative album, Blessings and Miracles, that danced its way through a whole slew of genres, this is recommended more for the adventurous listener and most likely one who's coming to it from the pop side rather than the alternative rock side. Let's Get the Party Started is a lively and up tempo song featuring Bring Me the Horizon that's edgy in a sort of trendy rock rap way with catchy emo lyrics. It's rock music for pop fans. The closer, On the Shore of Eternity is an instrumental guitar workout but one's that's laid over techno beats that are likely to put off traditional rock fans.
And that's both a good thing and a bad one. I love hearing styles that I've never heard before and I'm thankful for this introducing me to Phantogram, but I do wonder how Tom Morello's core fans will receive this. The only song with a Rage Against the Machine vibe is Hold the Line, featuring a relatively new indie singer and rapper called grandson. The liquid guitar that many know Morello for because of songs like Audioslave's Like a Stone is here on a few songs, like The War Inside and On the Shore of Eternity, but it's hardly a focus for the album.
So hey, it depends what you're looking for. This is imaginative and mostly quality stuff but it may not be remotely the music you think you're getting into. This is an electronica album more than it is a guitar one and it's a pop album more than it is a rock one. That a lot of it is good stuff may not make any difference to whether you'll like it or not.
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