Atoms For Peace - AMOK
Posted on Monday, 25 February 2013 | No Comments
There's a reason why the supergroup normally gets a bad press. A bunch of rich, pampered rock stars, usually well past their creative prime, reaching out to one another in the spirit of ego massaging, 'jamming' loosely without aim or intention because by this point, they've got the money and they've got the fans, so what's at stake anymore? The supergroup - an entirely inaccurate euphemism for the collective masturbation of rock'n'roll salesman steadfastly refusing to push each other out of the comfort zone. The supergroup as where art goes to die.
Formed originally to tour Thom Yorke's 2006 solo album The Eraser during a break from Radiohead duties in 2009 following the In Rainbows campaign, Atoms For Peace mixed the obvious (Radiohead and Thom Yorke's constant producer from OK Computer onwards, Nigel Godrich, was an inevitable contributor), the suitably talented but low-key (sessionists Joey Waronker and Marco Refosco) and the frankly bizzare (the slap-bass one from the Red Hot Chili Peppers) into a veritable musical clusterfuck. While the band worked well in fleshing out Yorke's solo material, when it was announced the group were headed for a full-length studio collaboration on new material, the mind still boggled at exactly how it was all going to work. Was the Radiohead mastermind now at risk of putting out his own Lulu?
To start with the obvious then: if this is indeed a collaboration, then it's the most uneven one imaginable. Thom Yorke (and, as producer, Godrich's) fingerprints are all over AMOK, with only the slightest trace of influence from Joey, Marco or Flea. It might be coming out under a different name, but for all intents and purposes, this is really the second Thom Yorke solo album - it just so happens this time that he's already got the players lined up for a live tour beforehand.
As opposed to an extended list of contributors, the difference between Thom Yorke's The Eraser and Atoms For Peace's AMOK lies in their rspective takes on dance music. The Eraser was Thom Yorke's interest in twitchy, discomforting IDM taken to its limit, a suite of subdued ballads fuelled by little more than glitched beats. On AMOK though, it's the more open, club-ready sounds coming from Flying Lotus and the Brainfeeder collective, twisting live samples and fluid percussive lines into by far the most dancefloor orientated record of Yorke's career to dare. As opposed to the apocalyptic, black-and-white Stanley Donwood artwork adorning its cover, AMOK is a fully technicolour work.
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the album often works at its best when it's at its most dense and saturated, a whole array of synths, sound effects and beats carryng on behind Yorke's still beautiful falsetto to weave a dynamic, powerful web. On opener Before Your Very Eyes..., a twitchy burst of Afrobeat guitar slowly becomes overpowered by the electronics in a shifting soundscape that gets proceedings off to an astonishing start. There's also the album's greatest outlier, Stuck Together Pieces, which acts as as the sunny, laid-back twin to Reckoner's exquisite melancholy. and the one moment where the two percussionists Joey and Marco and Flea's bass playing really make their presence felt. On these tracks, the rhythmic complexity Radiohead explored on The King of Limbs gets pushed further and allied with the most strikingly optimistic (or at least, least oppresive) material Yorke's composed to date.
If there's a drawback to the album, it's that the constraints of the project - to produce something approaching a bone-fide dance record - do clip Yorke's wings at times. While it's refreshing to hear a record of his that's actually lacking in ballads, at times there's a lack of the emotional heft that's always been such a part of his brilliance. (It's for this reason also that the deeper, darker closing pair of Reverse Running and the title track mark the album's high-point.) The point also has to be made that putting Ingenue on the tracklisting, an enjoyable and stunningly textured piece that nontheless slows the album down following the imperial lead single Default, as opposed to the brash, funky Default B-side What The Eyeballs Did, scores something of an own goal.
On its own merits, AMOK is an expertly realised slice of intelligent, detailed, ideally executed dance album that makes for a striking and hugely enjoyable contract to The Eraser's subdued charms. There's enough great moments here - the chorus of Default, the bass-lead outro of Dropped, the acoustic guitar and cut-up beats of Judge, Jury And Executioner - to keep any fan of Yorke's work more than happy. The nature of the project though results in an album, however, still results in an album with less of the emotional resonance that marks out his finest work. To call AMOK a slight work is a perverse compliment to the remarkable discography it's been born into. But to anyone who's been keeping track on him, AMOK stands as an enormously pleasurable yet still slightly hollow effort. And in this supergroup, it's not the bass player with the sock on his cock to blame.