Review: Atoms for Peace

For many music fans (including myself), Radiohead is as inextricable a part of life as spouting opinions online and buying overpriced concert venue food. They are one of the few bands that two (possibly three) generations can claim as one of their greats. The immense burden of consistently high artistic quality that lies on the heads of these five talented men weighs heavy, particularly for singer Thom Yorke. Yorke famously helped steer the band into the left-field electronic experimentation of Kid A after he felt that 1997’s flawless OK Computer had painted them into a corner. Thirteen years later, Radiohead are both elder statesmen and “cool”. They are not washed up, but they are tried and tested.

Amok, the debut album by Yorke’s side project, Atoms for Peace, arrives in this odd limbo. A supergroup (though Yorke vehemently denies this tag) formed to play Yorke’s solo material in 2009, Atoms for Peace features Yorke, Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, bassist Flea and touring percussionist Mauro Refosco of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and drummer Joey Waronker of Beck and R.E.M. Despite the diversity of this lineup, much of Amok is almost musically indistinguishable from both Yorke’s 2006 solo album The Eraser and Radiohead’s most recent album, The King of Limbs. Skittering drum loops, odd chord progressions, and Yorke’s trademark falsetto vocals colour each of the album’s nine tracks, giving Amok a cohesive sonic quality. The overall mood is paranoid and claustrophobic, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to longtime Radiohead fans.

Actually, there’s not much here that is a shock. Yorke, as the de facto leader of Atoms for Peace, exerts an enormous influence, but it’s unclear which tracks here were collaborations between the musicians and which were unused solo demos sitting in Yorke’s laptop folders. The opener, “Before Your Very Eyes…”, is the one of the few songs here that sounds like a jam session, as afrobeat rhythms and scratched guitars lock into a groove reminiscent of Talking HeadsRemain in Light. By contrast, “Default” and “Ingenue” are creeping electronic numbers driven by frigid synths and clicking drums. None of these tracks are bad by any means, but they are not immediate, only revealing their subtle hooks on close scrutiny. Amok’s distance is mostly due to Yorke, who sticks to his upper vocal register for the majority of the album and thus refuses to become an engaging element of the songs. A lack of catchiness isn’t the problem here; it’s the lack of almost anything to draw the listener in and of anything that sticks after multiple listens.

Case in point: the best track here is the shortest and least fussy. “Judge, Jury and Executioner” not only has Amok’s best chorus but is genuinely eerie with its mix of acoustic guitar, choral moans, and off-kilter time signatures. It could easily have fit on Radiohead’s underrated 2003 album Hail to the Thief, of which Amok sounds like an underdeveloped version. Without a focus, Yorke’s jittery paranoia is toothless and without any revelatory performances, the all-star cast feels underused. MMM

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