Atoms For Peace
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
For those of you who aren’t aware, Atoms For Peace is a kind of supergroup side project spearheaded by Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke. For the past few years, the band, which also includes Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, drummer Joey Waronker, and percussionist Mauro Refosco, have been playing shows now and then to excite Yorke diehards and frustrate those who fear the interminable wait for another Radiohead album.
Amok is the first album release from this loose collaboration, so loose that Flea appears on only five of the nine tracks on the disc, his bass usually buried deep in the claustrophobic mixes. What immediately shines through upon hearing this music for the first time is its commitment to rhythm. This isn’t exactly new for Yorke; the most recent releases from Radiohead certainly have contained their share of groove-oriented songs. Still, this can almost be classified as a dance record, albeit a chilly one.
The album is front-loaded with its finest two songs. Opening track “Before Your Very Eyes” achieves some of the mathematical funk that Talking Heads once mastered, and Yorke’s observations of the letdowns of modern life (“Look out of your window/What’s passing you by/Did you really want this?”) also recall David Byrne’s clear-eyed worldview.
“Default” is the album’s first single and a real grabber, featuring a fractured synthetic riff that is funky and frigid all at once, like a weird mashup of Prince and Bjork. The words tell a spooky tale of someone being swallowed up by his desires. Yorke hasn’t changed his lyrical style for the new project, favoring evocative phrases, like “I fall between the waves” from this track, that are pasted together with far more concern for their cumulative effect than for narrative continuity.
To tell the truth, the lyrics aren’t really the main point here, since Yorke is simply using his voice as another component in the cacophony Atoms For Peace creates. (Many of the words are pretty indistinguishable anyway, just a lot of vowel-heavy moans rising and falling.) The set-up is quite similar for most songs, with Waronker and Refusco creating clattering, thick foundations while the singer floats above it all and a bevy of synths and computerized bleats add texture.
The rhythms do vary a bit: Tribal beats spark “Judge, Jury, And Executioner,” while the shuffling title track closes out the album on an almost jazzy note. On the whole, Yorke and Atoms For Peace manage to sustain an unsettling vibe even as the music invigorates with its bold strokes. Amok isn’t an album to be analyzed so much as experienced, preferably with headphones maximizing its occasionally mesmeric effect.