“AMOK” is the new album from Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s solo outfit Atoms for Peace, a “super group” including Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Flea, Beck drummer Joey Waronker, percussionist Mauro Refosco and Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich. Yorke’s second non-Radiohead LP since 2006’s brilliant “The Eraser,” “AMOK” is one of the warmest records Thom Yorke has put out yet, full of strong compositions, percussion and hooks. However, much of “AMOK,” like recent Radiohead releases, feels unrealized.
For better or worse, when Thom Yorke puts out music, people listen. That is the problem with a lot of his recent offerings. Yorke seems well aware of his own credibility, and this often translates to music that sounds effortless. The problem with Radiohead’s last record, “The King of Limbs,” was how unfleshed the songs were. It seemed that every track included the same polyrhythmic drums, whispered vocals and drop-tuned guitars. Drum loops muddied production by lasting the entirety of the song. Dynamic changes were hard to find, and only on a couple of tracks did the band try to do anything different.
“AMOK” is less monochromatic. Whereas “The King of Limbs” dragged in its uniformity, “AMOK” is colorful, energetic and at times unpredictable. Yorke, influenced by electronic pioneers Flying Lotus and Burial, has become obsessed with post-dubstep production. Taking cues from Afrobeat artists like Fela Kuti, “AMOK” is filled with arrhythmic percussion incorporating live and electronic elements. The record was pieced together from a three-day live session following a brief tour in 2009.
On the opener “Before Your Very Eyes,” a jangly guitar line is backed with skittering percussion, before Flea’s bass and multi-tracked synthesizers are introduced. “Before Your Very Eyes” is a reminder that Atoms for Peace is very much a group effort. The clanging drums of Waronker and Refosco echo the more rhythmic moments of “The King of Limbs.” Flea slips in basslines both funky and melodic, working to either guide a track or slip into the background.
Following “Before Your Very Eyes” is where the record slows down. The second track is disappointing lead single “Default.” There is a percussive element that sounds like a nail scratching a chalkboard, and the main melody sounds like a cellphone alarm clock.
Is “AMOK” a dance album? Almost. Apart from “Default,” some of the songs have strong grooves to them. Yorke has embraced the dancer side of electronic music, and it works very well at times. A song like “Ingenue,” with its Four Tet-esque drum loop, feels the most dance-y the once gloomy singer has put out yet. A lot of the album incorporates repetition heavily. If the clashing percussion and ray gun noises are too overbearing, like on “Dropped,” it can get unlistenable after awhile. Some songs feel overloaded with beats and percussive sounds. Every track begins to feel a little predictable; bouncing percussion is followed by a bassline and a number of synthesizers before Yorke’s falsetto brings the track to a building climax.
Thom Yorke arguably has one of the most distinctive voices in alternative music today. He’s been fairly coy about his range on recent Radiohead material, and continues to do so here. On most songs, the vocals act as more of an instrument, a slithering melodic line to bring the track home. “I couldn’t care less,” whispers Yorke on “Unless.” The most upbeat cut on “AMOK,” “Unless” features bouncy synthesizer arpeggios and a punishing rhythm section. The chord progression, similar to Aphex Twin’s “IZ-US,” is reminiscent of Radiohead’s earlier electronic material. Otherwise, a lot of the vocal parts seem almost improvised. The strong melodies that characterize many Radiohead albums, and even Yorke’s solo debut, are absent. Apart from the occasional hooky line, like “Don’t worry baby, it goes right through me” from the brilliant “Judge, Jury, Executioner,” a lot of these lyrics do not feel thought out.
Preceding the acoustic-tinged, 7/8 shuffle of “Judge Jury, Executioner” is “Stuck Together Pieces.” Other than Flea’s fantastic bassline, “Stuck Together Pieces” is another example of a groove which never reaches home. The song seems to go on and on, even after incorporating a guitar line lifted almost directly from Radiohead’s 2007 “In Rainbows.” “Reverse Running” includes delicate piano and cut up drums similar to frequent Yorke collaborator and glitch-hop innovator Flying Lotus. The song works until the bee swarm of synthesizers towards the end.
The title track, however, saves the record from feeling like a too-lengthy Yorke experiment. On the closer track “Amok,” all of the elements seem to finally come together. Pockets of analog synth hover over live kit drumming layered with drum machine claps. That nail-scratching sound is back too, unfortunately. Flea guides the song through its quiet opening to a grand build-up of piano, layered vocals and synthesizer. Similar to “The Eraser” closer “Cymbal Rush,” the track is an adrenaline rush of sounds. It is emotive. There is an underlying loneliness in the way he repeats “To run amok, run amok.” For a line so chaotic, so playful, Yorke chants it so quietly and meekly that it’s maddening. The politeness of Yorke provides a blanket to the chaos of the record, humanizing its electronic elements and grounding the cacophony.
3 out of 5 Beyonces
Favorite tracks: “Unless,” “Amok”