Photo Credit: Travis Shinn
The Atlas Underground Flood follows the same formula as its predecessors, seeing Morello collaborate more or less successfully with well-known artists on songs ranging from hip-hop to folk-rock. Immediately familiar invites this time consists of British punk-rockers IDLES, legendary Rush-frontman Alex Lifeson, Metallica-guitarist Kirk Hammett, and the American indie-group Manchester Orchestra. But unlike its predecessor, the Atlas Underground Fire released earlier this year, Flood doesn’t waste half a side with aimless experimentalism, keeping a more conventional profile throughout the album.
The title of the opening track “A Radical in the Family”, signals a return to Tom Morello’s political side. If you’re a fan of Morello not only as a musician but as an artist, you’re also likely to share his leftist political views. The hip-hop track “Hard Times”, featuring rappers Jim Jones and Chipotle Joe, ends with a line as radically militant: “Let’s face it, this country wouldn’t give a pot to piss // And the cops are the worst kind of block of pigs // When they shoot they better hope the shot don’t miss // ‘Cause n*ggas be getting’ ready for the apocalypse.” The Ben Harper-featured “Raising Hell” reminds us of Morello’s work as The Nightwatchman with its folksy, acoustic vibe and references to Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M. Again, we get politically charged lyrics such as “The hornet’s buzzing in my head // Like fascists in the government.“
But even if the political consciousness is a welcomed addition to the Atlas Underground series, the same issue that plagued its predecessors are still obvious. Most of the time, the songwriting is just not good enough. “Human” featuring Barns Courtney, sounds like a lazy OneRepublic rip-off. “You’ll Get Yours” tries to flirt with Americana but ends up, just like Andrew McMahon’s “The Maze”, sounding like something that could have competed in the Eurovision Song Contest. The worst of them all is “I Have Seen the Way” – almost four minutes of trademark Metallica-riffing and the same ridiculous slogan shouted over and over again, fused with awful production.
Not even IDLES, who released one of 2021’s greatest records earlier this fall with CRAWLER, can save The Atlas Underground Flood. Instead, it’s Manchester Orchestra who manages to come up with something listenable. “The Lost Cause” is a flowing piece of fresh indie-pop featuring some pretty inspired guitar playing from Morello. Otherwise, Morello has clearly taken a step aside as a guitarist on this album, and when he finally appears with a solo it sounds forced and misplaced. His playing remains intact, but a great guitarist should also know when and where it’s time to play. Morello does not, leaving us with a record only the most infatuated Morello-fan could love. Wasted all-star collaborations, uninspired guitar playing, political messages that don’t strike as hard as they should, and bad songwriting in general. Can we move on from The Atlas Underground series now?