Atoms for Peace's Amok: A First Listen
Who's the audience for Thom Yorke, Nigel Godrich, and Flea's stutter-skip project Atoms for Peace? Well, me, probably. Preferring the contained chaos of Yorke's 2006 solo bow The Eraser (and his incredible cover of Miracle Legion's "All for the Best") to anything his Noted Rock Band has done over the last 10 years, it's probably up to me to like this thing better than most things, though the only song that's grabbed me in advance so far, "What the Eyeballs Did," isn't actually on the record. Fun fact: these first listens all started with one very (un)special eight-song album. So let's see how this goes.
"Before Your Very Eyes"
First things first: this sounds like the theme from Ren & Stimpy. Yorke's done a lot of funky things in Radiohead (what's up, "Where I End You Begin"?), but he's never opted to swing before and well... this is what we get. There's distinct guitar, some kind of background klaxon that sounds like the midpoint between a glass breaking, and a phone ringing, and some downright "Lust for Life" bass. Yorke himself is actually the most indistinct thing about it. I could only make out something about "keys to the kingdom," and his ultra-high held notes could actually vie with Dave Longstreth's in Dirty Projectors more than anything Chris Martin's harrumphed out at a grand piano. At 2:21 some actual Skrillex synth pads pick up the stuttering groove, but there's little actual forward motion. Better it rocks out than rocks back and forth, though.
Okay, this is a nasty riff -- sly buzzing, sinister whirring, double-time clicking and Timberlake-ian "huhs," this inversion is like FutureSounds/HateSex. Wasn't so big on it when it leaked, but this is a lot of fun even though the constant clacking never forms a groove, just Velcro pieces of beat ripping each other open constantly while no identifiable instruments exchange strange note sequences. It's not a default anything; this could actually be Yorke's future. And god help the dude, this is sexy. When he flutters out the words "so easy" you might even think of Tony Toni Toné. If Timbaland produced, of course. Unlike the first track's stitled six minutes, this one finishes five before you even know what's going on.
A pretty one! And more shuffling. The marked difference between this album and The Eraser is all the funk, though not in the way you'd expect -- you can't even tell what Flea is doing, unless it's synth bass, or any of the individual players, really. Which I bet is a hoot to decipher live. Meanwhile, this chorus is absolutely gorgeous, maybe his most distinct tune, period, since well, "Atoms for Peace." Bumpy too. How many Radiohead ballads can you say that about?
A simple, effective riff with bone-clear vocals over lots of Fruityloops clickity-cluck, until a bunch of synthetic sounds are funneled in around 1:30 and the percussion goes double time. It's amazing to think "15 Step" sounded like a novelty when all that spinning-knives percussion here makes up what's looking to be the full record. Judicious use of falsetto on these "hooo-oooh" hooks, although this is the least R&B-indebted cut so far. Drum and bass is another story however; can that please make a comeback? Everyone else has to be as sick of house 4/4 as I am. I especially love the faint cowbell hit that comes up once in awhile. And I'd love to see live musicians delegating out this crazy patchwork of sounds. The rhythms bring to mind Brazilian tropicalia wunderkind Tom Zé at his zaniest.
All right, so this one's a little indistinct -- could be an Eraser b-side, until that rippling synth horns in fast and sticks around for most of the song. Getting intense now, this makes me even happier than the Aphex on "Dropped" because it sounds like Yorke and Godrich and co. have been listening to Syrian Dabke music like Omar Souleyman, who's kind of like the Skrillex of wedding bands. I can almost hear Flea poking through on this one, and it's worth mentioning that all these songs use like, a thousand different rimshot snares. It makes the whole thing sound like a ping pong match with the occasional crumpled piece of paper. Songs? Not really. Beats? Loving it.
"Stuck Together Pieces"
Oh man, that's an unmistakable Flea bassline. The beat wiggles big time, Yorke is delighting in being a catchy motherfucker for once. This one's a fucking jam, grooving endlessly, the beat's clappy-cloppy sandpaper with horns and vamping guitar and it spaces out nicely for the finish. This is the TV on the Radio of dreams. One of Yorke's best songs in years.
"Judge, Jury and Executioner"
This on the other hand is a little obnoxious. Yorke moans over an odd-timed clack with churchy echo. The moaning is so dense you might not even notice the crisp acoustic guitar at first. Yorke's high notes are in mildly fine form, and this sure kicks the shit out of Grizzly Bear. Supremely odd chorus that you might never get the hang of, so just enjoy the ride. Think "Morning Bell" meets "Lotus Flower." And was that last sung note a blues run? Shit, cat.
Drums burst at odd angles, nothing new right? But the pretty, hypnotically bobbing guitar evokes David Hidalgo of Los Lobos (and especially Latin Playboys) of all things. This could well be the catchiest tune on the record; it's pretty instant, although Yorke's fluttering vocals have gotten quite difficult to extract from the mess of everyone else. If you're looking for lyrics, this ain't where to read along. Irritating middle sequence that sounds like a hip-hop break that William Basinki's running through its last-ever use. But anytime that guitar riff is running, don't walk.
This one's an understated jam, with jazzy block piano, more ghostly howls, and a groove-into-the-sun finale. After initial resistance, Amok held my attention for at least two-thirds of these nine tracks, and good! It pleased the 7th grader in me that loves OK Computer and "High and Dry" and "Pyramid Song" and actually wants Yorke to succeed despite his increasingly claustrophobic sonic palette these days. Hearing him do it with a full band gives it weight and breathing room even if the songs aren't as memorable as those on The Eraser. But they're subtler and more sinewy and don't just evoke a malfunctioning device anymore. It was impossible to imagine a kid getting his mind blown by The King of Limbs but this... there's excitement in thar hills. Even if it's just fresh blood like Nigel Godrich finally going to fantasy camp in his own band of dreams, or Flea being the architect of strange sequences worth his talent-for-hire. They make it count. Even Yorke sounds like he'd could make a panty drop or two. Better than The King of Limbs and the last Flying Lotus album put together.