The first time Thom Yorke tried to do anything away from Radiohead, the result was 2006’s The Eraser. That record arrived as something of a surprise to many, who thought that perhaps this was the beginning of the end for Radiohead, and that Yorke would go on to traverse his own unique path of further fame and fortune. Here’s the thing about that first solo effort though: interesting as it might have been, it lacked the depth and experimental nature of Radiohead’s best work. The instrumentals were culled largely from leftover scraps that Nigel Godrich had been piecing together with Yorke over a number of years, and many of the songs came to feel like lesser recreations of one of Radiohead’s great accomplishments, Kid A. In other words, it wasn’t the easy home run you might expect from a man who’s a hero to many and a god to many more. The lesson The Eraser really taught us was that those other guys in Radiohead – Jonny, Colin, Ed and Phil – are geniuses in their own rights as well, and there’s a reason what they do together works in a brilliant and legendary fashion. Whether it was a function of Yorke simply wanting to play those solo songs live or the idea of collaborating with other artists he respects and admires, in 2009 when Radiohead was on a break he got together with Godrich, Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Joey Waronker (R.E.M., Ultraista) and Mauro Refosco (Forro in the Dark) for a short tour to play tracks from The Eraser. They called themselves Atoms for Peace after one of the songs on that record, and essentially decided that if they liked each other enough and had the motivation, they’d make some new music together. Welcome to 2013, where Atoms for Peace are now releasing their first official full length as a band that they’ve titled AMOK.
If you give AMOK a quick surface listen without paying very close attention, it’s easy to come away with the idea that perhaps the talents of this “supergroup” are being wasted. The album sounds a whole lot like The Eraser with perhaps a little bit of Radiohead’s last effort The King of Limbs thrown in. Considering Yorke put that solo effort together with only the help of Godrich, you may be left wondering what if any effect Flea, Waronker and Refosco have had on this project since joining the band. The short answer is kinetics. In their 2009 live dates, they brought unexpected and fresh life to Yorke and Godrich’s recorded compositions, turning an introverted record into an extroverted one you could practically dance to. That same vibe is reflected once again with AMOK, because while the tracks most often reflect Yorke’s traditional discontent with the world around him, there are denser layers and fuller arrangements this time to back him up. It’s not terribly noticeable, but enough that you can envision a bunch of “Lotus Flower“-style dance moves going on behind the microphone more often than not.
Because Waronker and Refosco are the main forces of percussion on this record, it’s fascinating to hear the many flourishes that they add and don’t add to these compositions. Apparently these songs came together by Yorke and Godrich handing practically finished tracks to the other three guys, who then took it upon themselves to squirm their way into the melodies. There’s plenty of skittering, electronic beats going on to form a nice base on most songs, and with something like opening cut “Before Your Very Eyes” it becomes so much more with an Afrobeat-style hodgepodge of brushed cymbals, bass drum and a whole lot of other unidentifiable clicks and clacks. The best moment for live percussion comes via “Reverse Running,” when you can actually hear the snares punching and cymbals crashing for the duration. But then you listen to a track like “Default” which immediately follows it, and the only organic-sounding elements in the entire thing include a grinding noise during the verses and a bell that clangs once during the chorus. Everything else is so heavily embedded in manufactured (yet complex) rhythms and synths that it can feel like the only bits of humanity to be found are in Yorke’s airy vocals, and even those can get buried on occasion.
Picking out Flea’s work on AMOK can be a challenge at times too, as he certainly doesn’t stand out as much in Atoms for Peace as he does with the Chili Peppers. On a track like “Ingenue” his bass has so many filters applied to it, distinguishing it from the synths is nearly impossible unless you know his unique playing style, which almost always has its own personality no matter what effects might try to obscure it. With “Judge Jury and Executioner” though he’s shoved so far into the background and given so precious little to do beyond staying the course the melody pulls him in that any unknown bassist with a halfway coherent knowledge of the instrument could pull the same thing off without a problem. It feels entirely accurate to say that Flea is underutilized for much of the record, though he is given a few moments to genuinely shine the best way he knows how. “Dropped” and “Stuck Together Pieces” wouldn’t be nearly as good, exciting or propulsive without his intricate and dynamic bass manipulations, to the point where you could say they steal focus away from everything else going on. It’s interesting too because whenever Flea is given songs to take control of, it can also feel like all the other guys in the band are purposely stepping up their performances to both compete and compensate with his great talents.
Which brings it all back to Yorke. Atoms for Peace started as his project, but arguably he’s brought in other people because he doesn’t want to carry the entire burden himself. Listening to the vocals and lyrics he turns in on AMOK, the idea of retreat seems even more obvious. On most of his recordings, be they with Radiohead, solo or in a guest spot on someone else’s record, he takes a very present and commanding approach with his vocals. It’s gone a long way towards turning a number of good tracks into great ones. The King of Limbs certainly wasn’t Radiohead’s finest hour, however it could have been much worse without Yorke’s gripping and emotionally courageous performance. So why does he sound so deflated and disinterested on this Atoms for Peace record? The mix likely has something to do with it, as the instrumentals nearly bury his voice on most tracks. He doesn’t help matters much either by singing in a quieter, sometimes whispered tone of voice. The intention may have been to show fragility and weakness in the face of difficulty and tragedy, but he’s never gone that direction before and almost every song he writes is based on those or similar themes. Lyrically speaking Yorke isn’t quite on his A-game either, practically telling the listener that on “Unless” when he chants, “Care less / I couldn’t care less” for the first 90 seconds of the song, and a whole lot more before it ends. Of course that’s not his real attitude towards writing lyrics, it just made for a convenient example. As does “Default,” which thanks to phrases like, “The will is strong, but the flesh is weak” and “I’ve made my bed, I’ll lie in it,” registers as riddled with cliches and implies shaky songwriting overall.
As easy as it is to criticize AMOK for all the things it seems to do wrong, it’s equally important to mention the things it gets right. If you’re in a certain mood, you can strap on some headphones and turn this record on and become completely enveloped inside its world. There’s something incredibly compelling about this collection of songs that makes them easy to love in spite of its perceived warts. You could say it has both everything and nothing to do with the parties involved. Yorke is hailed as a genius and is likable enough to make you want to root for him, and the talent he surrounds himself with all have their own amazing things going on too. So in one sense if you’ve liked anything Yorke has done before, why should you stop now, even if it is a lesser effort? On the other hand, think about the context in which you’re listening to AMOK. With the degree of talent involved, there’s also a certain amount of weight applied to this band and record that absolutely wouldn’t be there if Atoms for Peace was actually a bunch of unknown names. If this were some random band’s debut album, they’d be hailed as smart and a name to keep an eye on. The tragedy is they can never return to that clean slate and get away with it, because we know too much about the genius that can pour out of these people based upon their pasts. This album isn’t as good as anything Radiohead have done to date, The King of Limbs included. It doesn’t quite eclipse The Eraser either, because it’s so cerebral and dispassionate that you almost don’t want to dance to it despite the creative Afrobeat polyrhythms on many of the tracks. This is a difficult and challenging record trying so hard not to be. It’s successful on the surface, but the deeper you dive the shallower it becomes. At this point, let’s just hope that should this project continue, that Yorke & Co. will be unable to sink much lower.