Review Summary: “Thom Yorke????”
In an ideal world, supergroups would be the manifestation of commercial music in its highest form – unstoppable shows of force sliding forth purposefully from one’s speakers, lending credence to the belief that the assembled musicians were meant to perform together all along. In real life however, they rarely exhibit what made us so excited about them in the first place, with the resultant records being merely passable or easily forgettable – which is precisely the category that the Thom Yorke-led Atoms for Peace find themselves falling into on their debut studio outing.
If there's a defining theme to Amok
, it's that it rarely escapes sounding like a solo record from the Radiohead frontman. For all the added bells and whistles – aside from Yorke, the album also features the talents of Joey Waronker of Beck and R.E.M. (drums), instrumentalist Mauro Refosco (percussion), Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea (bass), and longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich (production and programming) – the English singer-songwriter remains as an overpowering, and at times even suffocating, influence. Any extemporaneous hope that the backing combination would somehow find it within themselves to improvise freely within their role as Yorke’s musical bitch also quickly falls to pieces, as apart from a precious few exceptions, none of the gathered musicians seem able nor willing to push each other into new musical territory that could yield fresh revelations about their union.
The word on Amok
is that it was recorded over a three day jam session, with beats and licks from the tour de force
being subsequently culled, processed, and, over the next two years, meshed together into a more cohesive whole by both Yorke and Godrich. But while Amok
was always likely to have been an album in the vein of The Eraser
– “more beats and electronics”, as Yorke himself famously put it – this chosen method of recording and production contributes to the overarching sense that the album deliberately favours the artificial. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the upshot of this is that it frequently feels like Yorke’s co-conspirators – save for, perhaps, Godrich – are stymied rather than amplified. And it shows, too: songs like "Reverse Running" and “Default” feel like pieces that Yorke could easily have played and performed on his own, while “Judge, Jury, Executioner” falls too quickly into the trap of sounding like a Radiohead b-side. But ultimately, it's an unfulfilling and inconsequential number like "Unless" that confirms the amount of missed opportunities for Atoms for Peace; “I couldn’t care less/Care less/Such a mess,” murmurs Yorke on the track, and you can’t help but feel like he’s telling the truth.
Notably though, the songs that make the most overt stabs at a distinct identity are perhaps the most interesting ones: opening track “Before Your Very Eyes…”, for instance, contains the record’s most unexpected moment – an introductory section that sounds enticingly like an amalgam of the bassline to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Hard To Concentrate” and the skittering, bubbly shuffle of The King of Limbs
’ “Bloom”. Then there’s the eerie “Ingenue”, which thrives on atmosphere and succeeds solely on the back of a brittle-sounding synthesizer rhythm section and a schizophrenia-inducing sample that recalls the hollow drip-drip-drip of distant water in a cave. Elsewhere, “Stuck Together Pieces” features Flea laying out a propulsive bass riff that comes with such a generous distribution of acreage it almost feels like it was written and composed in outer space.
As that penultimate paragraph suggests, it's quite likely that the average listener might find something to enjoy within the dense, layered folds of Amok
– it should also be said that vocally, Yorke has never sounded more accomplished and at ease with himself as he does here. But it’s hard not to feel that a lot more could have come out of this than an improved vocal performance and a couple of interesting digital samples. For all their early promise, Atoms for Peace end up offering nothing except a wistful glance down the road of what-could-have-been – just like so many other so-called supergroups.