Review: Atoms for Peace – “AMOK”

February 27, 2013 No comments yet


The most immediate issue with Thom Yorke’s 2006 solo debut, The Eraser, was just how hollow the entire affair felt. While still a prodigiously convincing venture to this day, what became lacking was exactly what a solo record shouldn’t after over ten years with a prolific band: accompaniment. Each inflection of whizzing synth and clicking midi noise almost had the feel of a fracture of something larger that the Greenwood bros. might’ve forgotten to add in post production. That emptiness certainly wasn’t the case when Yorke ventured out to perform these tracks live, though. And, in a seemingly subtle nod of agreement, Thom enlisted the help of a star cast of bandmates to flesh out his singular ideas.

Long time Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, touring percussionist extraordinaire Mauro Refasco, Joey Waronker, whom you may know from his brief stint as R.E.M drummer/Bill Berry stand-in (or his intermittent touring with Beck) and, of course, the Wild Thornberry’s own, Donny Red Hot Chili Pepper’s own, Flea, made up the travelling outfit that would lift The Eraser to stadium level hertz. The problem was, the reanimation of Yorke’s personal, and often minimal, compositions were, in effect, a bit too good. If there were to be any expansion on this sound — a sound that couldn’t help but be a dominating force on Radiohead’s latest, and rather underwhelming, album The King of Limbs — Thom would need to keep this nucleus in tact, if only for the sake of attempting to catch lightning in a keyboard once again.

Enter Amok, the first studio recording arranged by The Yorke Tour Brain Trust for commercial release. And, if one thing is abundantly clear from one listen, it’s that “expansion” certainly wasn’t a chief goal for the quintet. If Eraser is to Thom Yorke what, say, Is This It is to The Strokes, then Amok traces the same familiar album to album thread that would lead to a follow up such as Room on Fire. First single, “Default”, wouldn’t feel one lick out of place on Thom’s debut, with its static lead synth embraced by melodic key strokes abound. And, it probably has conceptual roots to that time period as well. Though, while we may never know if those roots are indeed Eraser-specific, second single “Judge, Jury And Executioner” is about as old as the band itself, playing like a counter-piece to the nearly seven year old “Black Swan”. While much of this is definitely recognizable as “stock Yorke” pastiche, what the band does add is room for Amok‘s strict dedication to linearity to meticulously develop.

Tracks like “Dropped” and “Stuck together Pieces” follow a technique of building sparse, rhythm-section led grooves, and then abruptly layering the rest of the band’s contributions on the second downbeat, leading to some extremely adroit transitions. The latter of that mid-album duo refreshingly features Flea in full Blood Sugar Sex Magik slap mode; a freedom that one would think to be a prominent characteristic of this album, but is more often than not relegated to guiding inflections (not a single solo!) The problem with this technique of stay-the-course song structure goes back to the lack of expansion. Opener “Before Your Very Eyes” should, in some shape, have much more muscle to it, but where a track like TKOL’s “Morning Mr Magpie” similarly rode subverted climaxes into dissipation, this track takes cues for an equally ripe climax and does, well, nothing really. A similar fate would’ve doomed “Unless” had it not been for Refosco’s clear worldbeat experience and prowess, and Flea essentially imposing his will, with no concern for the state of Yorke’s drowning vocals. Its actually a moment of organic growth that shows the pulse of a unified band playing in sync, rather than a mechanical, electronic and experimental rock factory.

More moments succeed than fail with this punctilious approach, fortunately. “Ingenue” has more sway to it than anything on this album, with electronic elements taking over, but not poured on as a topping to an already accomplished piece of music. It serves as a track that informs everything that’s great about this record, which are the moments when the synthetic and natural elements work in harmony. Here, we get a gorgeous, Dntel-reminiscent melody interweaving with the warm bass line and delicate percussion to create something uniquely special, simply by being virtuous in its instrumentation. Another favorite, “Reverse Running”, features some surprisingly amped-up percussion (Phil Selway-esque, one might say) and some of those skittering vocal samples that Thom loves to drop in and out for tension. But, what makes this track one of my favorite things Yorke has done in years is the marriage of guitar, piano and vocals; a combo that seems foreign and passe post-In Rainbows. And yet, here it is, proving to be the one thing that could have possibly set this album apart.

Where The Eraser would tend to collapse in upon itself and then dig its way out, (“Cymbal Rush”, “Atoms for Peace”) Amok stands firmly on well mapped terrain, traversing with very little concern for progressing anywhere but forward. The closer, and title track, illustrates this better than anything here, with no surprises, (*ahem*) no major shifts in tone, and not even a tease of a breakdown. There’s just a singular effort to build to a satisfying crescendo, and the burgeoning of the most consistent thing in Atoms for Peace’s wheelhouse: Thom’s voice. No matter who is added to the lineup, or taken out, or muffled, or highlighted, Thom Yorke is ultimately the shepherding force behind the final product. We are all basically along for the ride, that even includes the four people who play alongside him.