Album Review | Atoms for Peace cultivats dense sonic layering on debut album ‘Amok’
Published: Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 02:02
Anyone who saw Atoms for Peace on their last tour in 2009 had a lot to expect from the group’s debut album, “Amok.” Formed by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke to perform his solo album, “The Eraser” (2006), the group sports an eclectic lineup: Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, David Byrne’s percussionist Mauro Refosco and Joey Waronker, a drummer whose work has appeared in much of Beck’s catalogue. The most thrilling achievement of the group was its ability to transform “The Eraser” from a compelling but chilly album into a dance-infused extravaganza on stage. Their debut brings incredible sonic density and some of this energy to the studio, but one can’t help but feel some of the band’s manic grooves cooled off as the album was being assembled.
The bulk of the album emerged from a three-day recording spree during which the band elaborated on ideas Yorke had compiled on his laptop. “Amok” was basically assembled from these recording sessions, which were edited, re-arranged and subjected to the studio wizardry of Nigel Godrich and Yorke himself to give the album its final form. Much like Miles Davis’ legendary collaborations with Teo Macero during his electric period, the majority of the work of “Amok” came after the mics were shut down and the editing room became the primary instrument.
This approach has its share of pros and cons. Yorke and Godrich’s proclivity for densely orchestrated, ethereal and rhythmically complex production gives the album a rich sonic palette, but it occasionally traps some of the group’s energy in the complexity of its arrangements. “Amok” produces a strange sense of forestalled gratification: beats and melodies develop and proliferate, but there is rarely a climax. Things tend to wind down or fade out, and never explode cathartically.
Depending on how you like your music, this could be a testament to Yorke’s taut songwriting and his preferences for withheld musical climax, or you could call it an album in the lurch, always waiting for the heralded “drop” to come. Either way, “Amok” is hard to ignore.
The album opens with the jangly guitar and clockwork rhythms of “Before Your Very Eyes ,” a song that gives a fair approximation of the tracks to follow. Jittering but largely unchanging rhythms undergird Yorke’s keening falsetto and ominous synthesizer lines. Like Radiohead’s “King of Limbs” (2011), much of the album’s aesthetic comes from the friction between static drum rhythms and amorphous, richly textured sounds flowing over them.
Unlike Yorke’s previous solo effort, “The Eraser,” “Amok” feels more like a cohesive album that obtains its full effect from a full listen. The songs are less standalone pieces than components of a greater mood.
“Dropped” is one of the most exciting tracks on the album, sporting some of Flea’s most prominent bass work. Acid-esque synth work and extremely concise but minimal percussion propel the track as Yorke layers voice upon voice until there’s an angelic choir of Yorkes crooning to the listener. The volume rises and the bass becomes more frenzied in the moments preceding the closest thing “Amok” has to a climax, all before fading out. The tension of “Dropped” and its hint of catharsis only make the rest of the album more inviting.
The next track, “Unless,” features a similar structure that gradually accrues more sounds before breaking down into a minimal bass groove. Once again, there are no fireworks, and any critical sonic mass is neatly avoided to sustain the rhythmic minutiae of Godrich and Yorke’s production.
The gem of the album is “Judge, Jury, & Executioner,” a track that sees Yorke’s melodic gifts in perfect equipoise with his convoluted grooves. Submerged acoustic guitar and a bevy of electronic clicks and blips surround Yorke’s emotive vocal performance — one of his best in years.
For all the instrumental virtuosity behind “Atoms for Peace,” it still feels very much like a Yorke solo effort. After all, two members of the band are phenomenal acoustic percussionists, yet there are very few non-electronic rhythms to be found on “Amok.” Depending on your expectations, this could be a disappointment or a pleasant surprise. Others can wait until the band’s live shows to really judge.