Album Review: Atoms for Peace ‘AMOK’

Thom Yorke is a genius, or maybe just a bit odd. Not quite as odd as he looks, but odd enough to consistently surprise with the musical decisions he makes. About the only thing you can be sure of going into a new release– no matter what band he is playing with– is that your expectations are likely to be a little bit off. At least as much as he is.

But that’s not really the case this time. AMOK is a surprisingly straightforward followup to Yorke’s debut solo release, The Eraser, and maybe that in itself is the surprise, because with a full band now behind him consisting of a league of genius-or-odd musicians you would expect something quite different. You would expect that the four other individuals, given credit for putting these song together, would change the dynamic significantly.

While this is a band, that isn’t always readily apparent. It’s hard to discern where Thom Yorke ends and Radiohead-producer Nigel Godrich begins, because their sounds have been so intertwined over the past two decades. That’s kind of expected by now, but you might assume that a couple of acclaimed percussionists would come across as more than Thom’s usual clickety-clack, or at the very least that Flea’s bass would assert itself more strongly. That’s the surprise this time around: It’s mostly just Thom Yorke.

Which isn’t such a bad thing. He has a way of making electronic music feel alive and soulful– even organic– and on The Eraser the surprise was that he could record a bunch of songs he wrote on a guitar using cold technology and have them sound very warm. He used his voice, along with fractured samples of live instrumentation, to give life to an album that could have felt dead and distant.

On AMOK there is warmth, but the distance is palpable. It’s a lot like Radiohead’s The King of Limbs in that it’s hard to tell which sounds are live and which are electronic, and all of the real instrumentation is so heavily informed by electronics that it really doesn’t make a difference anyway. However, the machine that is Radiohead delivered what sounded like a great and intricate jazz record, while Atoms for Peace have come up with, you know, some nifty trance tracks.

“Default” stands out to me as a soulful and approachable example of where Thom Yorke is as a musician today. It is a danceable track, but it’s also full of emotion and atmosphere. It probably wouldn’t make the cut on a Radiohead album, but here he has the chance to simplify things just slightly, and the result is probably more enjoyable to more people. It’s also one of few moments on AMOK where Thom leaves his falsetto behind and sings from the gut.

“Ingenue”, could be described in much the same way, with the exception that the disconnect between artist and listener is more difficult to overcome. This is the case with more of the album’s nine tracks than not, which may put some listeners off. There is much less variety here compared to a Radiohead release, or even The Eraser, and for the most part it could simply be called a fairly nice electronic album. Which is a slight letdown, but doesn’t mean it’s bad.

Where these songs should really come to life is on tour, as this was the entire purpose of Atoms for Peace as a project to begin with. It takes very talented musicians to turn songs like these into great performances with full, live instrumentation, but that’s one of Thom’s specialties and the band really proved themselves performing tracks from The Eraser in the past. Look for Atoms for Peace shows to be some of the best you’ve ever attended.

As for the recorded album, it’s only good.

Release Date: February 26, 2013
Image Courtesy of XL Recordings