Album Review: Atoms For Peace – AMOK

[XL; 2013]

During the Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich AMA on Reddit last week, Yorke was asked how he determines which of his songs are for Radiohead and which are for Atoms For Peace. He responded with the following: “Its a grey area. getting greyer. obviously depends on who is being sampled. are you being in sampled?” Flippancy and borderline English aside, it is actually a good sentiment to be aware of before walking into AMOK. Atoms For Peace is Yorke’s gift to himself, a repository for songs that Radiohead could have recorded in a parallel universe if they had stopped feeling the need to innovate and had stuck with electronica. But Yorke has more to give to the genre, even if he’s no longer blowing its lid off.

The pedigree of Atoms for Peace amongst the most fascinating to emerge in a decade, but AMOK sounds like it was built in the spirit of zero expectations. It isn’t aimless or wandering by any means, there’s a strong vision–Yorke’s vision to be precise–and there are a few grizzled vets aboard to help flesh it out. Along for the ride is Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist and human marionette Michael “Flea” Balzary and long-term Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich. Also in the mix are role-playing percussionists Mauro Refosco and Joey Waronker, who have the likes of REM, Elliott Smith and David Byrne on their CVs. The result is AMOK, a sci-fi lullaby that will please those already in Yorke’s flock, and may even win a few new converts.

As a product of Yorke’s mind, AMOK represents a measurable progression over The Eraser. It’s more experimental, varied, nuanced, and likeable. Songs change shape and direction at genuinely unexpected moments, as if the whole thing was birthed from one spontaneous marathon studio session and then obsessed over during mastering. Rhythms overlap and trip over each other, impulsively pursuing the perfect groove. As the acidic synth jabs of “Dropped” suddenly give way to a restrained motorik interlude, it’s thrillingly obvious how in control these guys really are. When they decide that the time is right for everything to click into place, it’s striking.

AMOK may not sound like Yorke on his own, but uninformed you’d be hard pressed to guess the individuals involved. Flea’s role here is so different from anything we’ve heard from him before that it may not even be possible to qualify his contributions. Much of his work is clipped and looped, and he isn’t often afforded the opportunity to display any dexterity on the bass. Godrich functions as the jack of all trades, while Refosco and Waronker churn out intricate and complex percussion that lends extra personality to each composition. Songs like “Judge, Jury and Executioner” (which was also the alternate title to Hail to the Theif’s “Myxomatosis”) sound like songs that Yorke mostly wrote on his own; others are team efforts. The fever dream synths on “Ingénue” wriggle anxiously, with leaky faucets and Selway-like rhythms trickling surreally in the background.

Although most of AMOK is very electronic, the delivery is so relaxed that it doesn’t really feel electronic. It’s also hookier than you might expect. “Default,” the most overtly single-oriented track on the album, shuffles around mischievously and gives Yorke a platform to deliver his most memorable line on the album: “The will is strong/But the flesh is weak.” The immaculate title-track creaks and clatters disconcertingly, slowly filling up with velveteen vocal loops to send AMOK off on a high note.

On “Before Your Very Eyes,” there’s a rather telling reference to “the keys to the kingdom.” AMOK is pretty much just a playground for Yorke–and us, for that matter. He’s appears to be enjoying the process instead of focusing solely on the outcome. Yorke recently addressed the topics of longevity and age: “I’m forty-four now… if I can’t enjoy this now, when am I going to start?” Good point.