After years of recording and collaborating with a dizzying number of musicians, prolific axeman Tom Morello combined his inspired guitar wizardry and revolutionary's spirit with a genre smorgasbord of surprises on The Atlas Underground. Billed as a genre of music that hitherto hadn't existed, The Atlas Underground blends Morello's guitar firepower with pounding EDM beats, cutting social justice rhymes, and urgent rock vocals, like a modernized union of the Judgment Night and Spawn soundtracks from the '90s. In regards to Morello's own sprawling discography, this set honors the spirit of outspoken protest from his dusty Nightwatchman work, but veers closer to the cross-genre aggression of Street Sweeper Social Club and Prophets of Rage. Considering his past work with the Prodigy ("One Man Army") and the Crystal Method (Tweekend, Drive), as well as his penchant for guitar-as-turntable scratching, it should come as no surprise that Morello isn't a stranger to electronic dance music. And yet, The Atlas Underground is still unexpected, a novel effort that packs enough punch to incite a riot on the dancefloor or in the mosh pit. The impressive list of features culls voices from the worlds of rap, indie rock, and punk, while production is provided by artists better known for big drops and high bpms. Each song is a story in itself, with a cast of characters that could fill a festival lineup (including Portugal. The Man's John Gourley, Marcus Mumford, K.Flay, Phantogram's Josh Carter, Pretty Lights, Gary Clark, Jr., Whethan, Dave Sitek, Leikeli47, Baauer, Miguel, and more), making The Atlas Underground a head-spinning album that plays like a soundtrack or greatest-hits compilation. On the rock end, Rise Against frontman Tim McIlrath and producer Steve Aoki -- a former political activist himself -- collide for the fiery festival banger "How Long," which slaps an Aoki beat onto McIlrath's howling cries of "How long can we drown out [the hungry mouths and burning streets] while the bombs fall at our feet?" Distilling anger and frustration, the rappers turn out the most pointed and socially relevant tracks. Atlanta double-threat and Dungeon Family brothers Killer Mike and Big Boi join Bassnectar on the rabid "Rabbit's Revenge," which shines a light on police brutality and the black lives violently taken across the United States. Alongside producer Carl Restivo and Run the Jewels affiliate Boots, Chicago MC Vic Mensa delivers the defiant "We Don't Need You," which rallies against a broken system rife with inequality, violence, and lies. Wu-Tang Clan's RZA and GZA even make an appearance, joining Herobust on the pro-proletariat closer that urges "Rise...we are many, they are few." Elsewhere, Knife Party deftly fuses Morello's wah-wah guitar effects with towering drops on "Battle Sirens," while Restivo takes an unused Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave riff and twists it into a juicy, industrial-edged blues jam. Frustrated, hungry, and full of rage, The Atlas Underground is a rallying cry set against an inventive and propulsive backdrop that inspires a physical response as much as thoughtful action.
AllMusic Review by Neil Z. Yeung