FIVE OUT OF FIVE STARS
Unpredictability can interest people because you never know what can be done with the time, resources, friends and skills one has. One person who thrives in the unpredictable is Thom Yorke.
For the last 20 years, Yorke has been the frontman and principal songwriter of Radiohead, the band who has changed the game of alternative rock music every time they’ve released a record. When Radiohead was pegged to take brit-pop into the 21st century, they mixed electronic sounds with their rock guitars to cut two classic records that surprised their hard earned fan-base (“OK Computer” in 1997 and “Kid A” in 2001).
Sometime around the peak of their popularity (2003’s “Hail To The Thief”), Radiohead took a break and Yorke decided to cut a solo record in 2006 (“The Eraser”) and tour with a peculiar backing band: producer Nigel Godrich, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea and Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco.
Yorke, who has one of the most distinct voices in music, knows what he likes, and as evidenced by Radiohead’s last two albums, has an itch for electronic music that he likes to scratch. So with Radiohead on yet another break, Yorke brings this unique collection of musicians together again as Atoms For Peace, and after a scarce and secret amount of live shows and promotion, releases “Amok” to the public.
After listening to the record, one would think that “The Eraser” was actually Atoms For Peace’s debut, not a Yorke solo record. The sounds are very similar; looping electronic beats, precise instrumentals and Yorke’s cool howl.
This is undoubtedly a dance record, but the kind for kids who love Joy Division as much as Swedish House Mafia. Opener “Before Your Very Eyes..” sounds like skeletons dancing in the moonlight with Yorke’s voice sounding smooth, even with dark lyrics like “Old soul on young shoulders/How you’ll look when you’re older/time’s fickle card game/with you and I”.
“Dropped” is where Flea comes alive, in a way. He is typically known for funky freak-outs in which he slaps the bass with fury. Lately, he and the Red Hot Chili Peppers tend to have improvised jams when they play onstage, but in Atoms For Peace he keeps himself in check.
He still has amazing instrumental skills, but it’s nice to hear him sound comfortable and relaxed in tracks like “Stuck Together Pieces.”
Atoms For Peace are indeed a band, because they click very well together on tracks like “Default,” “Judge Jury And Executioner” and the title track. Drummer Jerry Waronker, who has also played alongside R.E.M. and Beck, keeps time with Godrich’s looped electronics and Yorke’s guitar picking. It is even more surprising that a group this connected created this album over a three-day jam session.
“Amok” is undoubtedly a brainchild of Yorke and Godrich. The sound on “Amok” share’s similarities with Radiohead’s “The King Of Limbs,” but what sets “Amok” apart from “The King Of Limbs” is that “Amok” does not have the pressure of being a Radiohead classic. Atoms For Peace really doesn’t have much to live up to because nobody knows what to expect from this odd super group.
Whether that matters to the group or not (but it’s probably safe to say they couldn’t care less), it makes for an interesting group and a great departure from what is considered dance music. An overdose of thumping beats and excessive bass drops can give dance a bad name, but “Amok” believes that less is more.
This is chill dance music that both DJs and jazz players can coo over. There really isn’t a dull track on “Amok,” but there is the question of what would’ve happened if Flea cut loose just a little bit more, or if Godrich had picked up a guitar with Yorke to make a real racket.
But this is Atoms For Peace, the most unpredictable move any of these band members could’ve made, and every time you listen to this record again, you hear another blip somewhere in the sonic groove. “Amok” is dance music with a conscience, something sorely missed and desperately needed in the 21st century.