Music Reviews

Atoms for Peace Amok

(XL Recordings) Buy it from Insound Rating - 7/10

When Thom Yorke put together Atoms for Peace to tour songs from The Eraser with him, blog posts, webzine comments and tweets all wondered where the band would go from there. Would Flea, Joey Waronker, Nigel Godrich and Mauro Refosco record an album with Radiohead’s front man or would they come together to play whatever music he recorded by himself? While the arrival of Amok seemed to signal the former, there’s an argument to be made for the latter.

At first listen, the Atoms for Peace debut sounds like a Yorke album, not a band album. The music clearly displays Yorke’s fascination with electronic beats and rhythms, not really showing signs of other major contributors. Signs of Flying Lotus, Burial and Four Tet are all over Amok, but it still sounds distinctively like something Yorke would make. The result is not something that sounds like it was made by five distinct members, but by one or two, as Godrich filled in his role as producer. Even when doing press for the album, it always seemed to be Yorke or Godrich doing the talking.

However, on repeated listens, there are signs on contributions, particularly from Flea. While live bass is not a huge part of the LP, when it’s there, the Chili Peppers bassist makes the most of the space he’s given. So the band aspect of this project is in question. How are the songs? Although Yorke’s songwriting prowess is still very strong, this record is by no means perfect.

You would think it’s pretty damn close to perfect at the start, though. Before Your Very Eyes… pulls together with a groovy, sloped guitar riff, the bass in the pocket and polyrhythmic beats pounding away in the background. The chorus, where Yorke ascends into his haunting, crooning falsetto, lifts the whole track and makes a good opener into a great one.

The first single, Default, begins with a stuttering, almost abrasive beat that creates the sense of running and stumbling through a dark forest. When the fuzzed-out synth kicks in on the chorus though, it’s like breaking through the foreboding mood into a clearing. There’s certainly a lightness and freedom to the chorus, an escape from that earlier claustrophobic setting.

Ingenue is a puzzle when it starts, as the staircase-tumbling synth comes in with no accompaniment. It’s only when Yorke starts to sing that the song makes sense. As it moves forward, a sense of spiritualness and peacefulness embeds every corner of the song.

The best track by far is Judge, Jury and Executioner. The muted rhythms are built up with ghostly wails, then Yorke’s guitar and vocals come in and you can feel everything click into place. The chorus’ quick-tongued, melody-jumping approach makes it instantly appealing and ear-grabbing. If you are trying to get someone to listen to this album but you’re not sure where to start, go with this song as it’s easily the most accessible. It’s a very philosophical track as well, with lyrics like I’m like the wind and my anger will disperse and I talk in layers. No surprise that it’s the only song Atoms for Peace played in 2010 and one that sounds like multiple people helped to gestate.

So far, everything seems great. But the problems appear on a few of the heavily-electronic tracks. Quite a few numbers on Amok sound like electronic jam sessions, where Yorke came up with a few beats and synth riffs and quickly cobbled them together into a song. Dropped and Unless pass by without much notice, sounding more like background remixes than songs. Reverse Running is a jazzy sketch of a song, with guitar noodling that goes nowhere. Stuck Together Pieces wastes its light guitar riffs and brass touches under layers of beats.

Still, the album ends strong with the title track. The seesaw keys make up for a nice rhythm and melody, sounding like the light side of the tripped-out ending of “Pulled Apart By Horses.” The heavy, live piano chords are an excellent touch that add to the melody, but keep the main beat in place. The ending minute where the main melody and Yorke’s voice are unchanging and the electronics go all over the place around them is the type of jam that could have gone on for another five minutes. But Yorke ends it at the best time, leaving you wanting more.

So while questions may frequently come up over how much of a band project Amok really is, the music for the most part, makes up any misgivings people may have. After all, if the songs are good, what else really matters?