Atoms for Peace, Thom Yorke’s Side Project, Isolated and Lost on Amok

A promising project takes a step in the wrong direction

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Image: Amok
XL Recordings


This post is in partnership with Consequence of Sound, an online music publication devoted to the ever growing and always thriving worldwide music scene.

A lone rat scurries about on a floating piece of driftwood. A melting palm tree slumps towards its inevitable fall near Crossroads of the World. A passenger’s struggling hands materialize on the backseat window of a sinking wagon. A lost traveler clutches the bow of his dinghy, while an ominous hooded seaman navigates at ease nearby. Not too far away, a man clutches a winded telephone pole, no doubt screaming for help towards the erratic soldier a street over, who stands guard above the apocalyptic wasteland that is Los Angeles. Not even Disneyland makes it out alive in Stanley Donwood’s gloomy artwork for AMOK, presented in full at the album’s terrifying official site.

Similarly, loneliness floods the debut album for Thom Yorke’s star-studded side project, Atoms For Peace. Despite being surrounded by some of the industry’s top-level talent – Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, all-star session drummer Joey Waronker, and Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco — AMOK comes off as an email attachment from the deep, dark abyss that is Yorke’s mind. Words like “processed” or “mechanical” spur to mind, which isn’t exactly surprising given the songwriter’s hints to Rolling Stone last fall: ”One of the things we were most excited about was ending up with a record where you weren’t quite sure where the human starts and the machine ends.”

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Disappointing isn’t the right word to describe the end result, but it’s close. With the release of 2006′s The Eraser, Yorke didn’t have to deal with any adrenalized expectations, simply because he didn’t tout unique collaborations as he does withAMOK. Flea was still busy carving out his double-album Stadium Arcadium, Waronker was flirting with Hollywood scores, and Refosco was putting together his outfit, Forro in the Dark. Now, with a full band and not just a laptop of possibilities, Yorke sets the bar high for a team effort that could be unique and maybe even intimidating — instead, it’s what one would have expected in the summer of 2006.

Something was lost in the two years of tinkering between Yorke and Godrich. As the producer explained in the aforementioned interview, many of the beats and riffs behind AMOK’s nine tracks date back to 2010, when the outfit spent three days together in Los Angeles to snapshot the energy they exhibited on their critically acclaimed, short-lived tour. Yorke spoke highly of this time, stating: “We got wasted, played pool, and listened to Fela Kuti all night. It was that idea of trance-ing out. But there are still songs here.”

He’s not wrong; there are plenty of songs on AMOK. Album opener “Before Your Very Eyes…” caresses with sticky, glazed distortion and hand-chaffed claps; lead single “Default” haunts with spookhouse bass and dizzying beats, agreeably cribbed from 2003′s Hail to the Thief; “Dropped” torments over digital sparks and schizophrenic melodies; “Stuck Together Pieces” drills down found sounds and Yorke’s strongest vocal hooks; and “Judge Jury and Executioner” nibbles by with organic guitar work that sips from caffeine beats. These are the areas where the album squeezes the fruits of their labors, sounding less claustrophobic and more expansive.

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Yet much like Radiohead’s polarizing 2011 album, The King of Limbs, the many devils are in the very, very small details. Ignore Yorke’s wallowing vocals on “Unless” and, instead, zero in on the John Carpenter-inspired drone hook that stalks the background no different from Halloween‘s The Shape. On “Ingenue,” focus on the bass as Flea cranes his fingers, all behind Godrich’s showering arrangements, which later dazzle on “Reverse Running” — especially in the rapturous closing 50 seconds that outsmart the closing title track.

Hear it? Yorke’s crew is there, but in parts, and that’s the real snub to AMOK. Only does “Stuck Together Pieces” mirror those wild, Fela Kuti-soundtracked nights Yorke discussed (which is why it’s the album’s strongest track), and that’s pretty unfortunate given they had eight other opportunities to bottle that collaborative lightning. It all goes back to the seclusive pathos Yorke and Godrich injected alone together over those two years on their laptops. Godrich summarized it as “a backward idea – and a step into the unknown.”

It was a step in the wrong direction. By meddling with the organic nature of those days and nights together as an actual band, Godrich and Yorke wound up with another take on The Eraser. These songs don’t say anything about Atoms For Peace that Yorke’s solo album didn’t already say about himself. Far from capturing their kinetic live energy, AMOK feels as isolated, distraught, and feeble as the characters littered about in Donwood’s tragic portrait. Though, perhaps that’s always been Yorke’s intention; after all, he says it best in the album’s closing lines: “I’m trying to be a thought killer.” Next time around, Thom, step away from the knife and let it live.

Essential Tracks: “Stuck Together Pieces”, “Judge Jury and Executioner”, and “Dropped”

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More from Consequence of Sound: Watch Thom Yorke dance in Atom For Peace’s video for “Ingenue”
8 comments
silverharbinger
silverharbinger

This review is a difference in acquired tastes. The reviewer happens to really enjoy more off-beat rap and R&B albums, and I dislike the entire genre for the most part. Amok is more an off-beat mix of rock and ambient to name a few genres, and it just doesn't mesh with his preferences. The album is really good, but in the sounds of today it isn't what the mainstream listener is used to, what these critics listen to day after day, and that's fine with me. I don't really care about what other people think about what I listen to anyway.

RBlanchard217
RBlanchard217

At first listen, the album was pretty good. But, like most Radiohead albums, I listened to the full album over and over a few times and ended up falling in love. With each listen it gets better; you hear more, you feel more, you appreciate the genius that is the Thom/Nigel combo. This album is absolutely beautiful. It literally hurts my heart to be away from it - I can feel it pulling, begging to feel and hear it again. This critic is way too quick to judge.

TheNeoComGroup
TheNeoComGroup

Agree with SeanCarson. It gets better and better. Have listened to it dozens of times during the past week. Lot's of strange and unique sounds, rhythms, ambient mixing techniques, and assorted curious ideas. I heart this album. Thank you Thom & Co for giving me something worth listening to 100 times over. 

SeanCarson
SeanCarson like.author.displayName 1 Like

I'd have to agree with the other comments regarding this shoddy review. It's a fantastic album that even crosses over into exhilarating when listened to with good quality headphones. About the only song that doesn't grab me is "unless," but other than that, a number of the songs are totally *beautiful* and far from the tone that the reviewer gives them: reverse running particularly stands out. Default, Ingenue, dropped, stuck together pieces, and Judge/Jury are also great songs. Amok is a spooky closing tune with a catchy groove. On multiple listens it gets better and better. Don't be fooled by this review. You won't be disappointed in this album is you get it!

mikeqtx
mikeqtx like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

I think most critics have a pretty ridiculous job - to comment on another's work of art, but you missed the mark by so much that you should have your credentials pulled.  In eleven months this album will win alternate album of the year grammy and it will be well deserved.  not that this says anything, really, other than you should probably find a new journalistic endeavor. Let me do your job for you:   standout tracks are:  default, ingenue, dropped.  these are the kind of tracks that will draw you in on your first listen.  by the third time you have listened to the album, you will be telling your friends to listen. Time, if Consequence of Sound is your go to for music, you may want to rethink.  He is embarrassing you.

jimmybee
jimmybee like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Dear Reviewer, You need new ears. Your review is absurd and shows how completely disconnected you are from reality.

We're all so sorry that you have no idea what good music sounds like. Sincerely, Everyone Else

ggpaters
ggpaters like.author.displayName 1 Like

pffff. this album is awesome. this guy reminds me of the south park episode where people drive hybrids and love the smell of their own farts.

AndrewCrutchley
AndrewCrutchley

I hate how overzealous Radiohead fans are but i can't help feeling like the person who wrote this is a musical half wit and probably shouldn't be paid for their opinions.