Atoms for Peace, a side project that includes Radiohead
’s Thom Yorke and Red Hot Chili Peppers
’ Flea, venture toward experimental, electronic-influenced rock on their debut. Amok
will not sound that much different from Radiohead’s last few albums -- or, for that matter, Yorke’s solo album The Eraser
-- and that turns out to be a bit of a blessing and a curse. Filled with layered, gorgeous soundscapes, Amok
is an aural treat but also a bit familiar. As a result, it’s best to judge this album as a fun diversion for its creators, rather than as a risky or bold new artistic direction. But if you’ve liked where Radiohead have journeyed of late, you’ll enjoy this as well.
How a Solo Album Inspired a New Band
This group came together first as a way for Yorke to play the songs
off The Eraser
on the road. (As far as I’m aware, Radiohead have never performed any of that material live.) Those concert dates evolved into a band, which also features Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, onetime R.E.M.
drummer Joey Waronker, and occasional Red Hot Chili Peppers percussionist Mauro Refosco. But from the sound of Amok
, the texture and vibe of Radiohead’s recent works, such as The King of Limbs
, served as their guide. This isn’t to suggest that Yorke dominated Atoms for Peace’s songwriting, but this album would seem more likely to interest Radiohead fans than Red Hot Chili Peppers aficionados. There’s none of that group’s funky amalgam of punk, soul and rock on the record. Instead, these nine songs are full of the chilly, moody tunes of Yorke’s day-job band.
Revisiting Old Themes
Whereas The Eraser
was played almost entirely by Yorke, giving the impression of a man alone with his computer, Amok
has a bit more of a full-band feel, which helps breathe life into the ghostly tracks. For example, “Judge, Jury and Executioner” recalls Radiohead songs from as far back as Kid A
with its nervous rhythms and off-kilter beats. But there’s also a humanness to the track that keeps it from feeling airless, aided as usual by Yorke’s ethereal background vocals. Guitars take a backseat to keyboards on Amok
, but on the first single “Default” we see how Atoms for Peace avoid robotic anonymousness for a stunningly surging song filled with yearning and fear. Yorke has long investigated themes of alienation and modern-day anxiety, but Amok
’s general freshness suggests that not only are his pet obsessions still relevant, they’re still inspiring strong work out of him.
There is, nonetheless, a bit of disappointment that Amok sounds so much like Yorke’s previous work. Because of the merging of different artists, one might have hoped that Atoms for Peace would find the singer being pushed out of his sonic comfort zone with potentially revealing and exciting results. While it’s impossible to know the creative process that went into Amok, from the outside it sure sounds like a typical Radiohead effort. And when the material isn’t as solid, as is what happens near the end of the album, it can feel like leftovers or, perhaps worse, pleasant but forgettable background sound that washes over you but leaves no impression. Even at its best, Amok misses the shock of the new that can be such fun when members of so-called supergroups decide to start collaborating.
'Amok' - Bottom Line
Still, don’t let the hype around this project obscure the quality material on Amok
. The melancholy drift of “Ingenue” and the urgent paranoia of “Dropped” shimmer in their modest ways. And on a track like “Unless,” Atoms for Peace conjure up horror music for highbrow listeners, the keyboards and percussion putting you on edge from the start. Amok
rarely wows, but this minor set from some major artists is nonetheless impressive. To best appreciate the album, you may have to forget the big names that made it, which is just about impossible considering how distinctive Yorke’s sound and sonic fingerprints are.
'Amok' - Best Tracks:
“Judge, Jury and Executioner” (Purchase/Download
Release date – February 26, 2013