Tom Morello: 'The Electric Guitar Is an Instrument of Liberation'

How the rock star’s quarantine solo effort pushes rock ‘n roll into the 21st century.

For the last fifteen years, the statement “Rock is Dead!” has become an overused argument in music circles. A genre that had once defined the liberation of young adults the world over, among multiple generations, is now regarded by many as a relic of the past. But through The Atlas Underground Fire,

Tom Morello proves that rock is far from dead. On the contrary, it is as relevant as ever and it is embracing the future with open arms.

“I firmly believe that the electric guitar is the greatest instrument ever invented by humankind,” shares Tom Morello during a virtual interview with members of Philippine media. “And I also believe that it is an instrument that is the future, and not just in the past.”

Taking Rock’n Roll Past Its Boundaries

The Atlas Underground Fire is the successor to the 57-year-old guitar hero’s first solo-collaborative effort, The Atlas Underground. Released just a month ago, the album showcases Morello pushing rock ‘n roll past its boundaries through collaborative efforts with a diverse range of artists including Phantogram, Chris Stapleton, Damien Marley, and Bring Me the Horizon. A cover of the AC/DC classic “Highway to Hell” with Bruce Springsteen and Eddie Vedder served as the album’s first single, delighting audiences with a heavy and audacious sample of what to expect.

“A lot of guitar players are stuck in traditionalism,” Morello continues. “I love big guitar riffs. I love crazy, expressive guitar solos. But I’m constantly looking for ways to inflict my guitar vision on the next generation. The Atlas Underground Fire is exactly that. It is taking a six-string electric guitar, a Marshall half stack, my bare hands, and taking the traditional configuration and putting it into a lot of different settings.”


Over the course of 12 unique offerings, running at a muscular 46 minutes, The Atlas Underground Fire is a genre-bending tour de force. There’s something for all listeners: from the chiptune-inspired fury of “Harlem Hellfire'' to the eight-minute desert trance epic, “On the Shore of Eternity” (feat. Sama' Abdulhadi).

“I’m trying to play beyond what I’ve played before, while maintaining the essence of who I am as a guitarist,” says Morello.

A Lockdown Project

Unlike its predecessor, The Atlas Underground Fire was an album conceived at the height of the global lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The songs that would frame The Atlas Underground Fire began as a personal project that allowed Morello to cope with the same feelings of isolation many experienced during the lockdown. Without the aid of an engineer at his studio, he found inspiration from the most unlikely of places: a Kanye West interview where the rapper revealed that he had recorded vocals for several albums on the voice memo of his phone. Pleased with the results of having tried it on his own, Morello started developing song ideas at his home studio.

“It was very liberating to be able to dispense with all of the technical stuff that goes along with recording guitars normally,” Morello explains. “I have a chair next to my amp and there’s a phone on the chair. I hit the red button on the voice memo, start playing, and then send it to producers and engineers. What it allowed me to do was stay in the moment. Every day I would come up to my studio, come up with three or four ideas and think, ‘Who would I want to make a song with?’”

Like its predecessor, Morello tapped into his network of friends and colleagues to find collaborators to work with. From his work in Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave, and the Prophets of Rage, Morello’s work has always been defined by a manifesto that compels audiences to rise up for social change. The Atlas Underground Fire is no different as it brings together an international line-up of musicians fighting for positivity in the face of an unseen global threat.

“During a time when every day left like it was exactly the same during lockdown, there was a very unexpected quality to the creation of The Atlas Underground Fire,” Morello says.

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The Atlas Underground Fire

Every generation is marked by a piece of contemporary art that stands as a reflection of its period. And that’s what The Atlas Underground Fire tried to be in 2021. It’s a celebration of rock ‘n roll’s past and the traits that have made the genre such a revolutionary force. But most importantly, it’s a glimpse at rock’s future at a time when it no longer carries the cultural weight it once had.

The Atlas Underground Fire proves full well that rock ‘n roll is far from dead. It’s just evolving in the hands of the few that continue to keep its fire burning. Tom Morello is at the forefront of that evolution, bringing the past and the future together through the power of the almighty electric guitar.

“The electric guitar for me has always been an instrument of liberation,” says Tom Morello. “It’s an instrument of personal liberation, and political liberation, and sexual liberation. It’s a way to be in the world with a blowtorch of freedom.”

Listen to The Atlas Underground Fire now on Spotify, Apple Music, and on all major music streaming platforms.

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Veronica Litton
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