Atoms For Peace
Nick Torsell, March 21, 2013
Listen: “Judge, Jury, And Executioner”
The most telling thing about The King of Limbs wasn’t the actual album, which is better than you remember it being, but the remix album that followed. The thing reads like an introduction to now; producers like Blawan and Jamie xx chopping up album tracks until they’re completely rearranged and alien-sounding. Moving it from a pop construct to dance shifted the focus to the groove, the spine of Radiohead’s music since Kid A. On Thom Yorke’s new album with Atoms For Peace, Amok, that focus is amplified.
Atoms for Peace started as a touring band, a vehicle for finally playing tunes from Yorke’s 2006 solo album, The Eraser, live in 2009. The band features heavyweights Flea and Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, but it also includes Joey Waronker, drummer with Beck and R.E.M, as well as Mauro Refosco, who’s worked with David Byrne as a percussionist. Simon Reynolds, the new dean of music critics, wrote in his review of Amok in The Wire, “the idea for the project hatched during a drunken evening listening to Fela Kuti at Flea’s Los Angeles home, where the muso buddies grooved on what Yorke has described as ‘that idea of trance-ing out.’” While Reynolds’ tone implies this is more than a little pompous, it’s a good description of where the band is coming from. If this is Yorke’s mid-life crisis, it’s at least tame and worthwhile. The attempt to mix afro-beat and the electronic music Yorke leans on in his dj sets and producers he chooses to work with, like Flying Lotus and Modeselektor, isn’t clumsy or contrived, but belies a real love of it’s influences.
In Sasha Frere-Jones’ review of Amok in The New Yorker, he asserts that Yorke’s voice “is an unrelentingly beautiful thing that sometimes bothers him for precisely that quality.” On Amok, Jones continues, Yorke “resists, amicably, the reassuring quality of his singing.” Yorke will never be able to run away from his voice; it’s as singular and copied as any in pop music, but it is used differently here. Instead of sitting atop the music, his voice runs into it, mixing with the rhythm until you’re unaware what to focus on. It’s an exhilarating effect, this record moves in a way that Radiohead records are incapable of moving because of it, that has more in common with the electronic psychedelia of Caribou’s Sun than The King of Limbs or In Rainbows.
While “Default,” released last September, was the introduction to the material the band would produce together, the most well-rounded signal of intent is “Ingenue.” The track begins with a glitchy and angular synth line that begins to form around a slick, liquid-y pulse. Yorke sings confidently, “You know like the back of your hand” which for once reads more like a siren call than self-serious and moody. In an interview with The Guardian, Yorke attributes the shift in mood to location, “…it depends where I am, I think. Maybe literally. I’ve been working at home over the winter and everything I’ve been doing is dark as fuck. But we did a lot of this away in Los Angeles and it was sunnier. It was something to do in the afternoon and evening before you went out.” This casts Amok as Yorke’s most social and bright effort, miles away from the isolation and anxiety of his post-OK Computer albums.
Even though they only share one member, since Yorke’s voice is so tied with his other band, there are moments on Amok where you lose track of what you’re listening to. “Dropped” features a similar thump to the one that makes “Idioteque” Radiohead’s signature song to a generation of dance DJs and fans. There’s always something to snap you out of the past, as Frere-Jones’ put it, “Amok is stripped down, all points and lines.” That simplicity serves as an indicator that this is Atoms For Peace and not a Radiohead album. When Yorke does multi-track his voice, it’s not to prop it up, creating a paper tiger, it’s used to dive and coo, accentuating and then quickly disappearing. And while Radiohead functions more as a traditional rock band, especially live where Johnny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien stand as totems flanking Yorke, guitars rarely let themselves be seen on Amok. When they are unearthed, like on “Stuck Together Pieces” it’s a beautiful juxtaposition against the grind of synthetic beats that line the album.
Amok ends with its strongest two songs, “Reverse Running” and the albums’ title track, that encapsulate the albums’ best ideas, it’s simplicity it’s percussiveness, into their fabric. They’re not the catchiest tunes, or the ones with the catchiest hook, but they’re expertly crafted and gorgeous. “Reverse Running” pairs a combination of a gentle melody with a fast-moving rhythm section and ends with a frenzied electronic buzzing, mirroring My Bloody Valentine’s ecstatic noise. That drone ebbs into “Amok” which circles it’s own tail, repeating keyboard lines and vocal phrases until it builds and layers all its parts at once. It shrugs off any of its previous aesthetic restrictions to create something bigger and imposing. We’ve been given decades of evidence at this point to know Yorke won’t stay here long, but for once he sounds comfortable.