Tom Morello understands sick beats, activist rhymes, and weaponized noise. Matching rappers and rockers with EDM producers, The Atlas Underground brings all the above in the spirit of the early ‘00s, when mash-up maestros like Freelance Hellraiser and Soulwax reframed the possible in pop.
In 2018, of course, these styles are inextricably intertwined, so even unlikely matches unfold like no-brainers. “How Long” combines Steve Aoki’s gnarly sci-fi bass drops with the polyp-shredding punk howl of Rise Against’s Tim McIlrath, who demands “How long can we dance around/The hungry mouths/The burning streets?” In general, rappers work these fusions best. On “Rabbit’s Revenge,” Killer Mike, Big Boi, and Bassnectar update Ice T’s “Cop Killer” and N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police” for the Black Lives Matter generation. Masked up-and-coming Brooklyn MC Leikeli47 has a breakout moment on the RATM-style “Roadrunner,” while Vic Mensa hand-waves hacked Civil Rights laws on “We Don’t Need You,” declaring “Brown v. Board never gave us equality!” The glue throughout is Morello’s squalling, tunefully agro, and perpetually shape-shifting electric guitar. Things don’t always gel –- Marcus Mumford and Miguel turn in half-baked Zooropa moves on “Find Another Way,” and “Where It’s At Ain’t What It Is,” with fellow guitar master Gary Clark Jr. and producer Nico Stadi, feels like too many cooks in the kitchen. But when Atlas Underground works, it upgrades the RATM game plan with motivational anthems for a newly-fucked world order.