February 20 2013
It’s days like today when I’m really grateful that the world did not end in 2012.
Mere months after the alleged apocalypse, this year has already given humanity the return of Daft Punk, My Bloody Valentine’s long-delayed follow up to Loveless, and a new David Bowie record on the way. As if it can’t get any better, 2013 sees the debut album from Thom Yorke’s super-group Atoms for Peace. Formed in 2009 in support of Yorke’s solo album The Eraser, Atoms For Peace consists of Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, Mauro Refosco (David Byrne, RHCP), Joey Waronker (Beck, R.E.M.), and of course, Radiohead front-man Thom Yorke. A lineup like that really puts an emphasis on super-group.
You can stick a few of the most talented artists in the world in a room together, but does it produce a good album?
Most of the marketing for AMOK was viral, including hidden surprises buried within the official website, despite the huge names attached to the album. Even XL Recordings’ Los Angeles office got in the spirit of things and received a total makeover celebrating the announcement of the album. However, the band has kept both themselves and their work shrouded in mystery. But on a dreary afternoon in mid-February, AMOK began sneaking onto a few music blogs and message boards. By noon the next day, the entire album was available for streaming, a week ahead of the official release date. That day will echo in the memories of Thom Yorke fanboys like me for all eternity.
I’ll admit one thing though: I was terrified that this album would not live up to the ridiculously high expectations I had for it. Though as I began my journey into AMOK, the first track “Before Your Very Eyes…” immediately quelled my fears. If I close my eyes and imagine, this song sounds like Radiohead. It isn’t until the introduction of a deep, melodious synthesizer that the band separates themselves from any of the members’ previous work. While “Before Your Very Eyes…” would still make a great track for Yorke’s other band, it’s different enough that listeners can grasp what distinguishes an Atoms For Peace track from the rest. That difference becomes even more evident in the first single and next track “Default.” It’s easy to hear the Godrich influence in this song, but dual percussionists Refosco and Waronker take the spotlight here. It’s a great introduction to the sounds of artists you may not be as familiar with before AMOK.
Fans of Red Hot Chili Peppers who have been listening for Flea’s bass won’t hear him much until later in the album, but it’s possible to pick out his smooth bass line in “Ingenue.” However, Yorke’s vocals take the wheel for one of the album’s standout tracks and sound very reminiscent of In Rainbows-era Radiohead, specifically “Nude” and “Reckoner.”
From here the album takes off towards a UK dance scene vibe. Those who missed Flea in the earlier tracks can’t miss him here as he finally gets a chance to show why he is arguably one of the most famous bassists working today. Though Flea is known more for relaxed rock and roll or upbeat funk punk, his work in tandem with Refosco and Waronker on “Unless” have converted me to the Cult of Flea. It’s a beautiful track that shows just how well the members of Atoms For Peace can work together.
As we cruise towards the end of AMOK, the band let’s Godrich and Yorke do what they do best. Yorke’s voice and instrument of choice still sound warm and flowing a la In Rainbow, rather than the dark, sinister tones of The King of Limbs or Hail to the Thief. Layered within the rest of the song’s instruments, though, it avoids sounding too much like Radiohead. In any other review, not sounding like Radiohead would be a bad thing, but this one of my main apprehensions about Atoms For Peace.
“Judge, Jury, Executioner” comes next and although it was previously released as the second single, it sounds a lot better within the context of the album. It’s also the first appearance of an acoustic guitar which was unexpected, but welcome nonetheless. Last week, the band hid an Easter egg on their site that when clicked on would reveal a live performance of the song from Fuji Rock Festival 2009 in Japan. Nothing really special happens on this track, but it acts as a great setup for the final one-two punch of the album.
Despite only having nine tracks, AMOK finishes strong with “Reverse Running” and the title track, “Amok.” The band’s cohesion peaks on these tracks with Yorke’s guitar riff once again taking lead with Refosco and Waronker’s combination drumming in the back. Flea provides a solid bass before Godrich slips in and melts everything together into an electronic wave that segues into the final track. Here, the band sounds like they’ve been playing together for their entire careers (which combine to over 100 years between the five of them). After the band achieves total synchronization with each other’s styles, Yorke’s voice subtly appears from behind the veil of echo to sing the final few lyrics. Like the fires that envelop the album’s cover art, the song slowly consumes the listener before disappearing into the sound of bittersweet silence.
I’m always hesitant when it comes to huge, high-profile albums. I’ll listen to them all the way through multiple times, read all about the recording process, and watch as many videos as I can. I don’t want to ruin my credibility by accidently resorting to biased hyperbole. So brace yourself for this next part and remember I am not saying this lightly.
This album is perfect.
I said it. It didn’t even feel weird for me. I don’t buy into the idea of perfect albums very often, but with time, AMOK is well on its way to earning a spot among the pantheon of Kid A, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Rubber Soul, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and others in the Spencer Rose Hall of Legendary Albums.
Of course music is subjective, but even if you hate Radiohead, British people, or long-winded interns, AMOK is worthy of a listen. You may not think about naming your first-born son Thom after listening to it like some obsessive fans I know (who, me?), but you’ll thoroughly enjoy one of the guaranteed best releases of the year.
Listen to AMOK in its entirety below.