“The songs are parts of a whole, blending into one another with such smooth, understated transitions that it is hard to keep track of which one is playing at a given time…”
Atoms For Peace | AMOK
In a way, the debut album from Thom York’s new band, Atoms for Peace, makes perfect sense. Similarly to Radiohead’s King of Limbs, as well as Yorke’s collaborations with artists like Modeselektor and Flying Lotus, AMOK is characterized by glitchy beats, droning vocals, and a general disregard for traditional pop song structure. However, with the help of an allstar band that features longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich on guitar, synth, and keys, Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers) on bass, Joey Waronker (Beck, R.E.M.) on drums, and Mauro Refosco (David Byrne) on percussion, Yorke has evolved this sound, incorporating deeper grooves, richer textures, and a decidedly cyborg feel.
Throughout the album’s nine tracks, the interplay between the band’s slinky performances and the rigidity of their sequenced counterparts is tangible. On “Default,” warbling bass and grainy synths float around one another, creating a spiral of sounds that draw the listener into a dull, queasy trance. The combination of drums, percussion, and programmed beats all playing at once, as displayed most prominently on “Unless” and “Stuck Together Pieces,” further blurs the line between human and computer.
Interestingly, despite the busy, even deliberately cluttered arrangements, AMOK has a relatively small sonic imprint. It is as if all of the different sounds occupy the same real estate, never truly letting loose. The heavily compressed drums and weak, slumping synth on “Ingenue,” make it feel as if one is listening to the song with blankets over the speakers and a severe head cold. The result is a tightly wound style that is more claustrophobic than atmospheric; more nuanced than it is bold.
Though the African influenced rhythms can be frantic, the melodic elements are markedly simple. Synths aren’t as musical as they are textural, and the guitar plays a relatively small role throughout. This calculated restraint is particularly noticeable in the case of Flea, a bassist who is known for his aggressive slap playing. While the bassline often meanders, it does so subtly, serving as the songs’ backbone while drawing little attention to itself. As for Yorke, his vocals possess the same slurred delivery as ever, but are not a focal point of the songs.
AMOK is, strangely enough, a fairly easy listen. Though the mood is can be tense at times, the music is anything but abrasive. The songs are parts of a whole, blending into one another with such smooth, understated transitions that it is hard to keep track of which one is playing at a given time. That is to say that these are not especially catchy songs. Aside from the chorus on “Judge, Jury and Executioner,” and the lead guitar line on “Reverse Running,” there are not very many memorable melodies per se. This lack of straightforward hooks isn’t immediately gratifying, but rewards repeat listens.
For a band whose members have worked on so many disparate projects, Atoms for Peace display impressive focus on Amok. While it isn’t likely to spawn any crossover hits, this is a stellar album that showcases a group of topnotch musicians indulging in and refining Yorke’s icy electronic compositions.