Atoms for Peace - Amok

by Jonathan Tate Rating:7.5 Release Date:2013-02-24

I've heard Atoms for Peace described as a supergroup on more than one occasion, but I can't say I entirely buy it. I was slightly more convinced by The Good, The Bad and The Queen as a supergroup, rather than just another one of Damon Albarn's side-projects, because of the distinctiveness of the various players' sonic input - by which I mean the sound of their instruments - as opposed to any creative, songwriting input they may have had. Atoms for Peace are at a further remove in that there is no distinct instrumentation here that couldn't have been played by Thom Yorke. Flea and Yorke are the two 'stars' here, and the remaining members of the band - while essential to live performance, I'm sure - do not really distinguish themselves on Amok. So, in summary; Flea, Thom Yorke and some blokes do not a supergroup make.

This is really Thom Yorke's second solo album and, subsequently, my measuring stick for it is his first: 2006's The Eraser, which has some lovely melodies and a predominantly low-key, lo fi, relatively homemade (despite the involvement of 'super-producer' Nigel Godrich) feel to it. In some ways, Amok is more of the same, but I perhaps have to admit that the involvement of other musicians has given it a little more balls, not swagger per se, but this is a more assured and, in tone, consistent record.

Opener 'Before Your Very Eyes' has a world music-meets-funk vibe about it, which is nicely complemented by Yorke's floaty lyric of lost youth and innocence wafting above. 'Default' begins more like a track from The Eraser than any other on Amok, with a synth riff which sounds like it was created on a kid's Casio keyboard and recorded on a four-track. But after a short while, what kicks in is one of the key atmospheric influences of this album. I'm not joking about this, but it's the theme from The Terminator.

Or rather a sonic vision of the future as we all imagined it to be in about 1981. Slightly doom-laden, fuzzy, phased synthesizer chords which signal the rise of the machines. I'm genuinely not taking the piss here because it actually really works, and it complements 'Default's lyrical theme of coming from nothing to find success, but then having to deal with the Sword of Damocles. If, indeed, that is what it's really about. Having been through this album a good few times now, I'm almost convinced that the over-arching lyrical theme suggests that Thom Yorke has had an affair which has come to an end. Obviously, I'm not going to slander the man - I'm sure he's a faithful husband and father. Perhaps he feels bad for cheating on Radiohead. Again. Plus, he has form as a songwriter who uses the common language of the love song to comment on political, existential and broader universal themes.

Track three is 'Ingénue', which is blatantly about having an affair. Or possibly climate change. Either way, it has a lovely melody which is a little undermined by a slightly annoying keyboard riff. 'Dropped' starts with electronic stabs which again are offset by a gentle vocal melody, before giving way to a more urgent rhythm.

'Unless's' opening sonic motif is that of 'Arnie emerging from the flaming wreckage as… a robot!' But Thom Yorke couldn't care-a-less, because he knows it's useless. He does have a way with a tune though, and while this breaks down here and there, he really is able to weave his vocals in and out of that initial sense of foreboding to create moments of hope, despite the downbeat words.

'Stuck Together in Pieces' is a rebuke accompanied by probably the clearest bit of guitar on the album but, to be honest, I hadn't missed it up to this point. Here it does sound like the result of what some of these songs apparently are: Chopped up bits from jam sessions which these super-musicians recorded. It has that slightly directionless, waffly, funk-wank feel to it.

'Judge, Jury and Executioner' has choir-level layering of Yorke's voice and reminds me of a more electronic version of something from Radiohead's Hail to the Thief album. 'Reverse Running' is the song version of an apology to the wife which employs the age-old clanger, "It didn't mean anything" - and I think we all know where that leads. And finally, 'Amok' deals with the fallout from all that has come before, the 'what are you thinking?', the weedily whispered "Can I get you a cup of tea?", and the creeping around trying not to get in the way while also attempting to look as though you're a victim too - from insipid and over-effect-laden beginnings, this title track builds to a melodic crescendo before breaking down to end on piano chords as the remnants of the electronic rhythm dissipate.

So all in all, a success. The quality is slightly front-loaded and when properly compared to The Eraser, the main difference for me is that this is a less personal record, not just because there are other musicians involved, or not because of that at all. Or rather, indirectly, it is entirely because there are others involved. If the jam sessions came first, then this record is led by the music, whereas The Eraser was first driven by what Thom Yorke had to say. Subsequently, Amok is more musically assured, but lyrically less interesting than it might have been.

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