words by DREW MALMUTH
“Judge Jury Executioner”
Of all of the entertainment figures that I idolized growing up (Scrooge McDuck, Stuart Murdoch, Mr. Feeny, etc.) Thom Yorke probably had the most substantive impact. Radiohead informed my entry into the world of rock music and Yorke, in particular, was a constant point of fixation. In my mind he was an odd, insular genius with a droopy eye. I enjoyed that fact that he was cryptic and I saw all his obscure ramblings on Dead Air Space as important considerations that I was simply too young to understand. In the years since, I have stopped idolizing Yorke; however, I have watched with interest as this mythic introvert has become a talkative, multi-project musician that dabbles in the occasional Low End Theory. Like us normal humans, it seems that Yorke has become enamored with progressive electronic music. This was evident on King Of Limbs and now, with the release of AMOK, Yorke has started to blend the foundational elements of Radiohead with his deepening proclivity for the dance floor.
As a contrast to Radiohead, Atoms for Peace is a particularly interesting project. The songs seem to be built from different directions. Radiohead songs start from the inside (the melody, the song structure) and work outward to create the various accompaniments. With this project, Thom is starting with the warped electronic noises and working inward to build a melodic structure. It makes for some fascinating and dancy-as-hell tunes, but it may be the reason that the album as a whole doesn’t have the weight of a Radiohead release. Perhaps Yorke meant it that way. In any case, Atoms For Peace is not Radiohead and it should be treated as its own project; as such, it’s an often captivating listen that forges fidgety beats with a beautifully sinister atmosphere.
The project came together in 2009 when Yorke, in hopes of performing his solo album, The Eraser, with live instrumentation, brought together Nigel Godrich (longtime Radiohead producer), Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Joey Waronker (Beck, R.E.M.), and Mauro Refosco (David Byrne). According to Yorke, and those in attendance, their live dates at The Echoplex had a palpable energy that begged to be expanded upon. So original material followed. After three days of jamming, playing pool and listening to Fela Kuti, the elements of AMOK were complete and ready to be stitched together. When listening to the album it’s clear that those three days resulted in a treasure trove of interesting segments. Ideas burst out of every track. Thom works in his electronic experimentations and Afro-beat guitar licks; Flea crafts precise bass lines with moments of virtuosity; and Joey and Mauro bounce in and out of the programmed beats, obscuring the line between analog and digital sounds. With all of these concepts unfolding it was Godrich’s job to pick out the moments that would, once together, form cohesive tunes. When that was successful the album hits its stride but in other instances there is too much noise and not enough focus on crafting a song.
The album opens with a groovy guitar melody, skittering drums, and Thom’s sweeping vocals. It’s a deceptive opening, as about two minutes into “Before Your Very Eyes…” the synths take over the lead and remain, more or less, the melodic focal point for the rest of the album. More often than not however the melody is secondary to the album’s rhythmic textures. AMOK is constantly creating an interplay between programming and live drumming . Whereas Radiohead’s rhythms are almost entirely constructed by Phil Selway, a drummer that focuses on simplicity and precision, Atoms for Peace songs are a cacophony of programmed beats, kit drumming, and live percussion. “Default” is the first good example of this. The opening drop intertwines sub-bass with an off kilter drum beat and warped cranking noises. The synth line itself, rather than being arpeggiated, is chopped up into a spastic pattern. It’s not until the chorus that a sweeping synth comes to the fore, smoothing out the sound; and even then the drums are higher in the track than anything else. Amidst all these stuttering beats the album develops some lovely moments, but the energy and propulsion remains constant throughout.
Even Thom’s voice, which in the past has been the anchor of his songs, seems swept up by the arrangements. He often sings as if he doesn’t want the listener to know what he is saying. On “Ingenue” his words float eerily over the shadowy synth lines. When the words are intelligible they tend to form fragmented images rather than a narrative meant to be followed. Throughout, lyrical snippets suggest a feeling of isolation, even resignation. On the opening track Thom sings, “glook out of the window/ what’s passing you by?”; on “Default” he says, “I laugh now, but later is not so easy/ I’ve gotta stop, the will is strong but the flesh is weak”; and on “Judge, Jury, And Executioner” he wails, “don’t worry, baby, it goes right through me/ I’m like the wind and my anger will disperse.” These are the sinister themes that Yorke has often tackled but on AMOK they feel more scattered, like he has given up trying to make sense of them. It’s an appropriate aesthetic (given that dance music uses vocals more for atmosphere than for substance) but it results in songs that don’t dig themselves into the listener as much as they present a tune to nod along to.
AMOK is a surprisingly unassuming album in that way; each song has worthwhile hooks and accessibility is favored over abstract experiments. “Ingenue,” “Dropped,” and “Unless” form a trio of throbbing synth tracks that each sport quirky and inventive instrumental flourishes. Flea’s creativity on the bass comes through on “Stuck Together Pieces” and a few of the guitar licks would sound at home on a Radiohead album (in fact, some of them are just tweaks of old parts). The final two tracks, “Reverse Running” and “Amok,” both have deep bass undercurrents and swaths of snapping drums. On “Amok,” in particular, Yorke’s voice is ghostlike, and one is left with the feeling that, while this album was a group effort, Thom’s presence pervades almost every bar.
An album is usually judged against the past work of those that created it. This is why supergroups are so often disappointments. When a band’s members are affiliated with Radiohead, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beck, REM, and David Byrne the cumulative expectations are gonna be absurdly astronomical. But taken as a separate entity Atoms for Peace have made a good album that needn’t be bogged down by questions of what could’ve been. It’s the natural poster to take anything Yorke releases and analyze it into oblivion; however, seeing as Thom is giving frequent sarcastic interviews and generally acting like a normal human, perhaps it’s best to nix the hyperbolic rhetoric. At least until the next Radiohead album. [B+]
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