Tom Morello: The Nightwatchman

Tom Morello: The Nightwatchman

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Stevie Ray Vaughan. Hendrix. Eddie Van Halen. Randy Rhoads. BB King. Dimebag Darrell. Slash. Page. Clapton.

What all these guys have in common, aside from the fanboy worship of every 16-year-old that’s ever picked up an issue of Guitar One, is that they’ve all taken the instrument and put their stamp on the guitar by forging a unique, signature sound that’s unlike anyone else in the history of the sport, and you’d be a fool not to include Tom Morello on that list. Between Rage and Audioslave, Morello’s become a household name for his lethal pentatonic power-chord mosh anthems, and, probably more importantly, for his effects-soaked guitar solos that have emulated everything from DJ scratching to ear-piercing octave squeals to stuff that’s borderline indescribable. And that’s what makes The Fabled City such a shocker – it’s a complete 180 from the firebrand, distortion-soaked pit music RATM cranked out so well. Surprise!

Now, with all that out of the way, we can get down to what The Fabled City IS, rather than what it isn’t. Instead of piling on the overdrive, The Nightwatchman takes their inspiration from some of the original protest music – that’s right, the folk music of the 1960’s – and what makes Morello’s take on the sound so engaging is that he makes no attempt to modernize it or fuse it with his back catalogue to create another ten-hyphen subgenre. This stuff is a straight-up throwback to the more unpolished, no-frills style of artists like Pete Seeger and the venerable ’60s output of Bob Dylan, and Morello packs a smooth, seriously haunting baritone vocal that’s splits the difference between Nick Drake and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds that seamlessly transitions between almost melodic or borderline spoken-word, and make no mistake, the guy is equally adept at both. Thankfully, Morello writes like the radio-ready, poppier aspect of folk-rock like Joan Baez and Buffalo Springfield never even existed, and his stripped down approach (most songs are a couple guitars, drums, and vocals, with the occasional mandolin or something) fits his message-centric delivery like TI’s house-arrest bracelet.

Speaking of the message, since that’s half of what folk music is built on anyway, it’s cool to see Morello taking a much more metaphorical approach than his venom-spitting former frontman Zack de la Rocha, and most of Tom’s lyrics are much more in the vein of the storytelling and allegory-heavy tales of the 60’s and 70’s, just like his music. Of course, it’s not exactly hard to dig up the symbolism in songs like ominous, minor-key pedal-steel chiller “The King of Hell”, but for every song like “King of Hell” or “Midnight in the City of Destruction” that seems to have an obvious point, there’s another cut like “Lazarus” or “Saint Isabelle” that are either pure storytelling, mournful odes to bad times, or good old-fashioned, we-shall-overcome pint-raisers that all command your attention, no matter what Morello’s medium of the moment happens to be.

While it’s admittedly jarring to hear a guy that’s spent the last 15 years blasting out scathing, explosive rap-metal and making funny guitar noises pick up an acoustic and a harmonica, the scary part is that he sounds like he’s been doing the folk gig for just as long, ’cause he’s equally adept at both. The Nightwatchman has struck an eyebrow-raising niche where he’s managed to adapt a vintage style and do it justice without shamelessly aping it, and he’s put his own stamp on the folk-rock sound without dumbing it down and pandering it to audiences that wouldn’t know what it was to begin with. For modern folk, The Fabled City simply can’t be overlooked… even if you still jam “Killing In the Name” on a regular basis like your faithful reviewer. Don’t miss it.

Highlight Tracks: “St. Isabelle”, “The King of Hell”, “Lazarus”


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