“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.