Clicks, clacks, whirs, and whines over top of some slinky drums and bass, all of the type that we’ve been hearing from Radiohead for about a decade or so now, pretty much sums up Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s newest side project’s sound. Atoms for Peace, which includes Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ fame, Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, well traveled studio drummer Joey Waronker, and Maruo Refosco, a Brazilian percussionist (who has toured with RHCP before), originally came together to back Yorke on his solo tour for The Eraser, Yorke’s first solo album. The guys apparently enjoyed playing together so much that they went ahead and formed a formal band, dubbing themselves Atoms for Peace. There really isn’t much by the way of peaceful sounds on AMOK though. Quirkiness rules, and if you’re a fan of late Radiohead then this is right up your alley. It’s an interesting project and album, but, at the risk of sounding cliched or simply not hip, when I hear Yorke’s whine I can’t help but pine for the days of OK Computer and The Bends. The guitar rock days of Radiohead are reduced to being days that can only be pined for, since they are probably never going to return.
I know, I’m incredibly un-cool because I don’t drool over everything that Yorke does. While AMOK is an interesting album musically, and especially rhythmically (mostly due to Flea’s presence), it often times ends up droning instead of transcending. Artistically, AMOK is the very definition of post-modern music. It is eclectic in nearly every aspect and incorporates computer/synth sounds that call to mind the machinations of Skynet while thumping mightily to some traditional and, dare I say it, funky and aboriginal sounding beats. In many ways though, AMOK drowns under the weight of its own artsiness. Tracks like “Stuck Together Pieces” do flirt with the aforementioned transcendence that breaks the monotony of the electronic and rhythmic drone, ironically enough due to Flea’s repeating, but ever interesting bass line and just the slightest hint of electric guitar (again though too much in the vein of latter day Radiohead). “Judge Jury and Executioner” also flirts with transcendence, this time mostly because of Yorke’s elevating line, acoustic guitar strumming, and (once again) Flea’s bass. “Reverse Running” falls into “Stuck Together Pieces” and “Judge, Jury and Executioner’s” category as far as listenable tracks as well, albeit just barely.
The rest of the album is much more experimental, and experimentalism can produce some compelling and groundbreaking music. “Default” is Atoms For Peace’s rhythm section’s best moment. Flea, Refosco, and Waronker thump, scratch, and tinker-tap out some incredibly multi-layered and textured beats and clicks. There’s so much going on here that you really can get sonically lost in the trip that is the mix. Tracks like “Dropped” though could have honestly been dropped from the album. It feels too busy, anxiety ridden, and simply over extended.
Much of Yorke’s solo work, side projects, and compositions with his original band are buoyed by anxiety though. Atoms for Peace, while definitely not peaceful, is a busy work that sometimes overworks itself, but is also definitely a little less anxious than most of Yorke’s music. Perhaps Flea’s California vibe has served as a bit of a metaphorical Zoloft to Yorke’s metaphorical anxiety disorder. If anything though, AMOK is nothing if not a bipolar work.