PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Music

Atoms for Peace: Amok

Though the roster of Atoms for Peace suggests a perfect blend of talents, the resultant amok is too much, too rapid, and too overwrought to reach the group's full potential.


Atoms for Peace

Amok

Label: XL Recordings
US Release Date: 2013-02-26
UK Release Date: 2013-02-25
Amazon
iTunes
“If you're going to do something you should at least shock or mess with their expectations -- not that it's necessarily art." -- Thom Yorke, Dazed & Confused interview, February 2013

In the two decades since the release of Pablo Honey, Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke has undergone several media characterizations. The arc might be described as a movement from angst to alienation to political indignation to bowler hat and tank-top wearing lord of the dance. Only those close to the man could say whether his actual personality has changed as much over the years. But it's safe to say that his activity surrounding the release of The King of Limbs (2011), and especially the video for single “Lotus Flower", were significant behavioral departures compared to any phase of his public persona up to that point.

During the OK Computer (1997), Kid A (2000), and Amnesiac (2001) period -- a relatively short span of time but noteworthy for its cultural impact -- press accounts built a figure that wanted nothing more than to hide away or disappear. At first glance, this seems inconsistent with the singer's admission in the February 2013 issue of Dazed & Confused that his chief impulse has always been to shock his audience. After all, in the late nineties and turn of the millennium, the least groundbreaking attitude one could adopt was a desire to escape social and technological noise. Yet when one considers that there are many ways to be provocative, then Yorke and his band hardly needed to accentuate their most substantial act of upending expectations, which was the music they produced. Pushing both the entrenched and perceived boundaries of how to be a big rock act, Radiohead let the music speak for itself. It jolted critics and audiences. It was art.

For years, the word “existential" has been indiscriminately thrown around in discussions of Radiohead. Though now, at least where its leader is concerned, Yorke's more vocal, more soulful, more mobile identity does seem to have something to do with questioning and asserting his place in the form he helped to redefine. And part of that shift has been a change in his position as musically literate leader of the vanguard. To some younger artists, like Flying Lotus/Steven Ellison, he's now simply a contemporary. In some cases, it is Yorke who openly follows others' musical leads. With the release of Amok, his first non-Radiohead LP since laptop solo debut The Eraser (2006), he tries to mold all these things into position. The results are mixed.

Atoms for Peace is a band that also includes Flea on bass, Joey Waronker on drums, Mauro Refosco on percussion, and longtime Radiohead associate Nigel Godrich on guitar, keyboards, vocals, and percussion. Yorke is the primary figure of the band, contributing lead vocals, piano and keyboards, guitar and percussion. None of the above job descriptions is sufficient in understanding the sound of Amok. This is a rare case in which the very name of the album is the best indicator of the sound therein. Having begun as a live band for Yorke's shows to promote The Eraser, Atoms for Peace continued to jam together, eventually recording songs that (like The Eraser) had their genesis as electronic compositions. Once recorded by the band, those tracks became material for years of mixing and remixing.

Amok raises a question. Is it possible for music to get tired and/or unfocused on the journey from computer to studio and back again? In this case, the answer is yes. Compare any song on this LP to an energetic Atoms for Peace performing “Cymbal Rush" at the Fuji Rock Festival in 2010. It's hard not to speculate about a better, more straightforward studio recording the band could have produced. To his credit, Yorke admits as much in the Dazed & Confused interview: “Oh, it's not like The Eraser at all. But it's not a band album either; it doesn't sound like a band playing." Left with the sonic equivalent of the uncanny valley, Amok is full of electronic and electroacoustic sketches that reveal Yorke's awareness of other recent forays into similar territory. But it lacks the spirit of creative breakthrough that that one might expect given the parts that created the sum.

One of Amok's virtues is its sequencing. There's a strong equilibrium between material that is primarily electronic and that which makes more use of the living, breathing band. Yorke, an accomplished ironist, tweaks the “machine" songs with the mistakist possibilities of live studio recording and morphs the “human" songs into a greater degree of digital precision. Regardless of this playfulness, the album never attempts the bold (at times unhinged) formal risks of albums such as Portishead's Third (2008) -- a influential recording that serves as the most recent gold standard for how to combine analogue synthesizers and live instrumentation in a novel way.

Though Yorke's appreciation for a good groove is responsible for some of the album's highlights, several aspects of Amok make a fast impression and then wear out their welcome. The looped guitar that opens “Before Your Very Eyes", and the bass guitar that joins it, quickly become inert. The song is much more effective when a distorted synthesizer and synthetic bass line take over nearly halfway through. The singer's voice glides above, repeating and drawing out the phrase “soon or later". Throughout the album, the lead vocals maintain a level of poise and sense of direction not matched by the overcooked musical arrangements.

“Default", the album's first single, is more dynamic than “Before Your Very Eyes" but lacks that song's emotional value. Built around a jittery synthesized rhythm that wouldn't be out of place on a Trent Reznor album, the song establishes the single most conspicuous feature of Amok, which is wall of percussion so busy that it could be called cluttered. Nearly every second is draped with pounding or rattling or dripping.

With a work such as Autechre's Confield (2001), also an apparent influence, such a confluence of complex beats is the music's main feature. But Yorke tries to have it all, crowding these tracks with percussive noise and still showcasing his ear for melody and pop/rock song structure. The very assets that make up his excellent track record as songwriter for a rock band become competing factors, even impediments, on Amok. This is particularly frustrating in the wake of The King of Limbs, a flat Radiohead album on which Yorke failed to deploy even his traditional songcraft, leaving the true innovation to his eventual remixers. TKOL RMX 1234567 (2011) is the superior fruit of other artists' imaginative efforts with that source material.

Though not considered one of Radiohead's more groundbreaking works, Hail to the Thief (2003) is the album whose DNA is most present in Amok. “Ingenue" is an offshoot of “Myxomatosis", here housed in what sounds like a leaky cavern. “Unless" owes much to “The Gloaming", and what is “Judge, Jury, and Executioner" if not a hurried update of “We Suck Young Blood"?

“Dropped" is the best Amok has to offer. Yorke's voice interacts with clipped synthesized sounds in much the same manner that it combined with piano on King of Limbs standout “Codex". A contrasting middle section features the bass guitar up front in the mix before the song segues into a sublime harmony made from the singer's voice multiplied atop itself. The sonic pleasures of “Dropped" unfold serially, not concurrently, and it's a shame that few other songs follow suit.

Elsewhere, even when Yorke does latch onto an interesting rhythmic idea, he undermines it with a parasitic opposing element. For example, “Unless" hybridizes variations of boom bap with Christoph De Babalon-style drum and bass, both of which are robbed of their power by the crowd of “yah yah yah yah" voices that fill the track in the second half. They certainly create a sense of paranoia, especially while listening with headphones. But they also distract from the cadence of the music. In the end, Yorke and producer Godrich stay much too busy layering on the decorations, as if not confident enough to trust in the utility of those simple, good ideas at the foundation of their songs.

A final point of comparison: Last year, former Radiohead opening act Liars released WIXIW, an album using many of the same sorts of ingredients found on Amok. WIXIW is a wide canvas of an album that provides aural spaces to get lost within. One major reason it holds up to repeat listens is that those moments of sparseness invite maximum interactivity from the listener. Amok bears no such judicious use of time and space. Perhaps Yorke aimed to create an album that would replicate the collective clamor of the modern world. In the process, he who once composed acclaimed albums with an eloquent view of future shock has engineered a set of songs that sonically conjure the concept and contribute to it, no less. Though the roster of Atoms for Peace suggests a perfect blend of talents, the resultant amok is too much, too rapid, and too overwrought to reach the group's full potential.

5

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.

Books

Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.

Music

Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.

Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Music

Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."

Music

50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.

Film

Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.

Film

The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.

Music

Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.