Every so often an unusual group of veteran musicians gather to form what was coined in the late ‘60s as a supergroup. There have been exceptional creative ventures, from the early Crosby, Stills & Nash, to the more recent Them Crooked Vultures and various Jack White endeavors, while others were better left to inebriated jam sessions at rock star house parties. After four years of hearsay and ambiguity (performing a two week tour in 2010 known only as ??????), Atoms For Peace have released their debut Amok.
Radiohead front man Thom Yorke and frequent collaborator producer/programmer Nigel Godrich, bond with bassist Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers) for a unique take on electronic afrobeat. Sonically similar to that of Yorke's solo work–see 2006's (The Eraser)–Amok is mostly written by Yorke electronically using a laptop. His comrades give the music a more human feel, playing the parts on live instruments. There are points of transformation, not in rhythm or melody, but from real to machine. At times you can hear Joey Waronker's drumming shift between handcrafted sticking to mechanistic clicking.
Perhaps the most notable stylistic distinction is Flea's bass playing. Here we're given a tamer, more precise Pepper on record. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Yorke described the band's chemistry in recreating his "mechanisms." He explained how, "The music I do on my laptop is so angular. When you get people to play like that, it's so peculiar. Most of it technically speaking, they can play. But there were times when we used the electronic sounds, because it was more brittle, more exciting."
Like those moving cubes on early screensavers we followed to see match the corners, Amok thrives like a boxed element hitting enclosed walls. There exists a sense of imbalance, often in odd melodies or wary structures matched by haunting vocals. It's unrestrained, yet seemingly trapped, in the vein of The Eraser, but entrancing like the most eerie Radiohead songs. The sort of album one might dance to alone in their living room.
The band dropped "Default" prior to release, a breathy composition of darting percussion and digitally pecked notes. Its chorus broadens through gliding synthesizers and Yorke's signature serenade: "I laugh now/ But later's not so easy." By the end his paranoia is felt, crooning "But it's eating me up/ If I get free from all the snares and nets." You can see this man running in place, head turned watching over his shoulder. "Stuck Together Pieces" rolls through a wavering bass line, built by perplexed vocals, geared beats and soft layered harmonies. Delicate guitar strums increase the emotional depth of one of the more responsive songs on Amok.
It all comes to an end with the title track, Yorke pining a spinning mantra, "To run amok, run amok, run amok." He can't seem to sit still or thwart over-thinking, likely the key stimulus behind this work. What we have here is an alluring album from a group whose components are likely greater than their combined effort. Amok is by no means a weak record; it's just not the best work any of these marveling musicians have released to date. In the meantime, run amok while anticipating the next Radiohead or RHCP release.
7.7 / 10
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