Atoms For Peace – AMOK (XL Recordings)
By Ben Green
“We operate like the UN. I’m America” – Thom Yorke on Radiohead’s collective decision-making model
“…the United States pledges before you – and therefore before the world – its determination to help solve the fearful atomic dilemma – to devote its entire heart and mind to find the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life” – US President Eisenhower’s “Atoms For Peace” speech to the UN
“How is it working with the Atoms for Peace group compared to Radiohead? Like eating ice cream after a lovely dinner” – Nigel Godrich answering a question in a Reddit chat.
Radiohead is a heavy scene. They’ve not just the weight of expectation – which, each time they’ve cast off, as at the turn of the century when they unhooked their entire gear trailer, has returned ever heavier – but also the weight of freedom, because if you’ve proven you can do anything you want, what are you going to do? The King Of Limbs (2011) turns indecision and trepidation into virtues, containing less songs within its engagingly brief span than it does shimmering pools, all intricate movement that goes nowhere like static on a screen. As natural as a dip in these pools feels, you can imagine the sheer time and effort it took to fill them.
It’s little wonder then, that Radiohead’s singer Thom Yorke has gone off to wear headbands and jam with Flea for a while. AMOK is the debut album of Atoms For Peace, the ‘supergroup’ that initially got together to translate Thom’s solo Eraser (2006) for live shows and which currently boasts Nigel Godrich (Radiohead’s long-time producer) as computer buddy/editing partner, Joey Waronker (funky drummer of Beck’s band, among others), Mauro Refosco (Brazilian percussionist) and, on slappin’ de bass, that’s right: Flea from Red Hot Chilli Peppers. That guy pops up in the weirdest places.
The band have explained that the album results from the dialogue between Yorke and Godrich’s pre-programmed laptop loops and sketches on the one hand, and the band’s on-the-spot responses to them in long jams, later edited down from three days of recordings into song form, Miles Davis and Can-style. Apparently, more sounds than you would think were made by some Latin percussion instrument or other. It’s abundantly clear, however, that the bass is live – as precise and pointillistic as the notes get in places, they sound like finger flesh. Flea flesh. That’s why he’s the no-brainer for a band like this: he can give even the most frenetically programmed bass a run for its money that would make Kasparov proud, but he can also do supple and snaking.
Yorke’s confirmed in interviews that Atoms is his hope to free himself from Radiohead’s uber-methodical approach for a while and to make music without expectations (including his own). This busting-out is audible when the opening track ‘Before Your Very Eyes’ comes out of the gate in a surprisingly straight line with its Afrobeat drumming and trebly guitar sounding for all the world like ‘I Zimbra’.
Although it’s hard to tell what percussion’s acoustic and what’s synthetic, the whole thing moves and breathes. “Look out of the window, what’s passing you by?”, croons that voice in torch-singer mode, “You’re young and good looking, the keys to the kingdom”. Personal entrapment and emancipation are recurrent lyrical themes, as are judgment and acceptance, continuing Yorke’s decade-long movement from the political to the personal. The only reference to the year we’re in or the planet we’re on is Stanley Donwood’s apocalyptic cover art (“big waves and shit” as Yorke called it on Reddit).
For all the watchmaker detail you were right to expect, this is not the over-compressed, claustrophobic laptop production it was fair to fear. There’s air to spare, not least in Yorke’s voice with its breathy vibrato left largely untreated, even when he accompanies himself in a virtual gospel choir (‘Judge, Jury And Executioner’ – for a challenge, try clapping along with them). People with nice speakers, people with drugs, and people who for other reasons enjoy the sonic detail in UK Bass, in which echo and space are instruments in themselves, will find plenty to enjoy in the rooms of this house. In fact, for all the jamming, this is the closest Yorke’s come to the vibe of the cutting edge dance music he’s done so much to promote to the rock crowd over the years. ‘Unless’ bears the tense baroque bounce of his beloved Zomby and the beat in ‘Reverse Running’ sounds like Objekt kicking hi-hats up the stairs; ‘Default’ has Aphex Twin rolling tiny ball bearings down PVC pipes and some of the tracks would almost work at a forgiving moment on a steppy dancefloor.
The synths are uncannily emotive, sometimes creeping around the shadows, sometimes singing, as in ‘Ingenue’ where a whimpering Prince is tied up in dripping cavern and made to watch beautiful synths being tortured while he thinks about all he’s done. Regularly they envelop everything, and people who go gooey in that bit in ‘Everything In Its Right Place’, where the synth takes over from the vocals, will love this album. More often than not there’s a groove, and people who like ‘Lotus Flower’ or just the thought of Thom Yorke doing his little hat dance will love this album. At the same time it’s at least as “songy” as The King Of Limbs, easily surpassing it in lyrical word count, as illegible as many of them are for the first few listens.
Just as a “jam with some mates” slides back to the cycle of press and touring, the singer slips into his other band’s comfort zone occasionally and these are among the duller moments.In each case AMOK’s hyperactivity and detail is what saves it. ‘Dropped’ resembles a Hail To The Thief plodder, but for the Frankenstein’s lab of percussion that awakens a chorus of beautifully harmonising Thom’s halfway through. It’s in the looser, bandier moments, where they bring together Fela Kuti and modern dance music, that Atoms for Peace harness their potential energy most consistently.