Rage Against The Machine lived to transgress. As they soundtracked 90s counterculture, their coalition of rap and rock tested both genres’ boundaries. Their onstage stunts, such as protesting censorship in the nude at Lollapalooza, decimated the lines of political correctness. And their guitarist, Tom Morello, somehow made funk-inspired licks sound perfectly heavy metal.
Two decades after RATM’s heyday, Tom still stirs controversy. His solo debut, The Atlas Underground, was self-described as “a brand-new alloy of metal, EDM and guitar-shreddery” and conflicted feedback was hurled in return. Depending on who you ask, its darting from genre to genre and cameo to cameo was either visionary or unfocused. Its follow-up splits the difference. This time also flirting with garage rock, folk, electronic and noise, it’s a smorgasbord of hits and misses.
Opening instrumental Harlem Hellfighter encapsulates the album’s best qualities. Buzzing guitars are routinely interrupted by J-Pop joviality before it finishes in a cacophony of synths. However, persistently heavy percussion keeps everything anchored, invigorating from start to end. In that vein, Oli Sykes’ yells affirm Let’s Get The Party Started as an aggro anthem, while Charmed I’m Sure uses a riff groovy enough for RATM as the nucleus of an EDM stomper. On the flipside, a pedestrian Highway To Hell casts two of rock’s greatest singers, Eddie Vedder and Bruce Springsteen, as little better than frontmen for a pub cover band. Chris Stapleton leads The War Inside through nauseatingly schmaltzy country, then Naraka plateaus in repetitive r'n'b beats. On The Shore Of Eternity proves a sadly similar finale, plodding monotonously for eight minutes.
Tom Morello could easily shit out bottom-tier funk rock songs and call it a solo album. That he’s taken a dozen risks is magnificent, but no gambler wins every time.
The Atlas Underground Fire is released on October 15 via Mom+Pop Records