Comparisons to Radiohead are inevitable when listening to “Amok,” the long-awaited debut album from Thom Yorke-fronted supergroup Atoms for Peace. They’re inevitable, and for that reason, justified. It’s impossible for Yorke’s solo work to step out of Radiohead’s monolithic shadow, but this is less a testament to our myopia than to the sheer scale of his achievement with that band. Thom Yorke will never again be just Thom Yorke. He will always be, “Thom Yorke, Co-Author of Ok Computer and Kid A.” I can’t say that’s such a bad thing.
But what makes Radiohead so great is their division of labor. It’s up in the air as to who’s the real brains behind the outfit, and this is the whole point: Radiohead are far more than the sum of their parts. It’s the seamless symbiosis and the rotation of leading roles throughout the band, that are responsible for their indelible legacy.
“Amok,” though, is a Thom Yorke album. It doesn’t come right out and say it, and the presence of Flea on bass might suggest that Atoms for Peace are more than Yorke’s backing band, but this is his project. Even the band’s name is an appropriated song title from Yorke’s first solo effort, The Eraser. That said, “Amok” is more fully realized than its predecessor, something no doubt owing to Yorke’s posse of Flea, Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, drummer Joey Waronker (R.E.M, Beck) and percussionist Mauro Refosco. It’s far more consistent, even to a fault, and does indeed sound like a full band rather than an enigmatic rock star interrogating a sequencer in his basement.
“Atoms for Peace,” the Eraser song (and Dwight Eisenhower atomic energy program) from which this band takes its name, is actually a fairly accurate predictor of the album’s sound. That song’s bassline bounces between your ears while skittishly avoiding synchrony with the neat percussion loops spinning underneath it. Yorke’s trademark falsetto wanders through the song’s open spaces, never really going anywhere and never really trying to. “Amok” features many of those same elements, albeit tightened up and injected with an energy somewhere in between amphetamines and paranoid schizophrenia – in short, injected with a little bit of Radiohead, somehow supplied by a non-Radiohead band. To some degree, “Amok” is what “King of Limbs” could have sounded like.
Opening track “Before Your Very Eyes” begins with a choked spiral of guitar riff that endures for the length of the song. Yorke treats his axe as electronic, looping arpeggios over a thicket of percussion as – surprise – he croons over the frenetic, rhythmic chaos that would engulf a lesser singer. The song’s components are a familiar cocktail by the end of the album: rattling but precise percussion, a buzzy synthesizer, and Flea’s bass thrumming along underneath. Yorke seems to have purposefully limited his palette this time around. Almost every track features a similar texture of snappy percussion, warm bass, and some iteration of the sweeping, ionized synthesizer which appears so often that one cant help but wonder if it’s just Yorke’s natural frequency.
Sometimes, this cocktail works brilliantly. “Judge, Jury and Executioner” is demented, slide-guitar Americana built on a shifting foundation of elusive bass and handclaps. “I went for my usual walk,” Yorke mourns in a perfect ghost town falsetto, and that’s really all we ask of him: more of the same. “Default,” the album’s second track, opens with a stuttering, breathless hip-hop groove before swelling to a wide-open crescendo. “It slipped my mind, and for a time,” Yorke sings, “I felt completely free.”
But at times, one wishes that Yorke’s mind had remained empty. The album is incredibly busy, hardly any sunlight filtering through the dense layers of percussion and sound effects. If Phil Spector pioneered the wall of sound, this is a maze of sound, and there’s almost no time to catch your breath. On frenzied electro-fests like “Dropped,” Yorke succumbs to the desire to fill in every crack with a new sound. The highlights are those moments that “slipped his mind.”
Most of the sounds that Yorke inserts so obsessively are percussion, making for unusually rhythmic results. Rather than traditional drums, an army of mysterious and frantic beats drives songs forward. This precise, propulsive groove lends itself to a genre entirely foreign to Radiohead, yet Yorke obliges with his own hazy interpretation of funk on “Stuck Together Pieces.” Flea’s bass makes the song, but it’s Yorke who offers self-deprecation: “I stuck together pieces,” he sings. “The joke is, I don’t need it.”
“Stuck together pieces” sometimes feels like an adequate description for Amok. Yorke’s singing is the glue, but absent the compositional brilliance of Radiohead, the album is more about sounds than songs, intriguing rather than enthralling. Some tracks run in place without ever getting anywhere. Fittingly enough, “Reverse Running” ruminates on its opening groove for far too long before finally swelling to a close amidst synthesizers that sound like swarms of locusts. “Ingenue” and “Unless” meander on for close to five minutes each before leaving us right where we began; with only one song under 4 minutes and most far longer, dull tracks can feel like a treadmill.
For all this, Thom is still a genius. Even if his songs don’t go anywhere, wherever they happen to settle down is usually quite pleasant. He’s a master of spatial arrangement, if not sequential; despite the incessant riot of electronic components, each seems to make sense. That is Yorke’s tortured genius, the need to expand, explore, push and even obliterate the envelope, and yet have it all come together like Martian stained glass. Yorke can’t possibly mean it when he sings, “Penny for your thoughts now” on the title track; he’s got more thoughts than he knows what to do with. But ”Amok” makes clear that there’s more to Radiohead than the multidimensional calculus going on inside Thom Yorke’s brain. Someone has to play the foil. Yorke is the head, but someone else has to be the radio.
Top Tracks: “Default,” “Stuck Together Pieces,” “Judge Jury and Executioner”