Atoms For Peace - AMOK

In recent times, Thom Yorke has become less the majority respected singer-songwriter that he is, and more a joke for forum dwellers and message-board scoundrels to poke fun at. Referring to the time way before the infamous Lotus Flower video dropping, the Radiohead front-man is one of those rare moments in music where the artist is clear in his focus for particular musical themes, yet at the same time ensuring there's still a comical and lively side to his personality. He's the guy we love, and the guy we hate to love for exactly the same reasons; he's not the be-all end-all...but he's pretty darn close to it. Away from his main identity, Yorke's solo album in 2006 was his first real deviation towards his growing fondness for electronic melodies. All of which cast in the greying shades of present-day debate and fixated struggles with the people around us, admittedly it was a political record that didn't necessarily shout to the tops what it was it was standing for, or rather in Yorke's case, against. Taking from one of the album's track titles, Atoms For Peace finds the front-man joining forces with Chili's bassist Flea and long-time producer Nigel Godrich for a five-man group performance in the form of AMOK, Yorke's electronic ideals fully met, and on paper, the opportunity to cull one's self from the indecisive darting that was [Radiohead's recent offering] The King Of Limbs.

This isn't a Radiohead album though - let's get that fact stated and out of the way early on. What this is however, is an opportunity and an intrigue potentially met with concrete ideas and creativity. Opening track Before Your Very Eyes... while may not aesthetically be electronically composed, it certainly has all the repetitious one-after-another manner of a synthesized piece. The track is quick off the line with dry percussive swatches and twirling guitar plucks - Yorke's vocals coming in a barowue-like cast of foggy latching-on around the music. Like what Limbs' Morning Mr. Magpie or Seperator provided, the sounds are fairly content and against any manner of change, but unlike the mentioned Radiohead tracks, there's no real established expectation or suggestion these sounds are longing/hoping to reach for. There's no hope or ambition for development, the soon-to-be buzz of electronics that throb and spark later on states how humble and acceptive the music is of its upbeat immoveable stance. Yorke's vocals gain more-and-more likewise in their ethereal expanse, lyrics growing more and more obtuse and ambiguous as the song reaches its clouded climax. Default, by contrast, comes across morbidly bare and vivid in its expression - synths a lot more crunchier and compressed than previous. And if it's not the broken, breathy hop of synths that emphasizes the track's tense atmosphere, then the approaching swarm of grazed electronics does so with warming precedence. 'I've got to stop', Yorke admits, 'The will is strong/But the flesh is weak/Guess that's it/I've made my bed and I'm lying in it.'

Clearly Yorke has lost none of the admirably blunt persona in his lyricism, and the music can be credited with having enough of an intensity and intrinsic reflection of Yorke's mood, because of it. But on tracks like Ingenue, it's the way Yorke deliberately comes across as withdrawn and slightly less bold in his trajectory that I think plays as much a crucial role in this music's delivery than the former singer-songwriter context. Seeing Flea in this line-up - and knowing full of his prodigy-like status as a trumpet player - I can't help but visualize the fruitful tone that comes up throughout the track as Flea's brass playing, but drastically synthesized by Yorke's twiddling with electronics. And while this is perhaps the most fronted contribution we've seen from any of the other four members of this group, the contrasting nature of the sax textures works nicely to stretch out the track's comforted rolling-along stream of percussion hits and bobbling synth notes. As noted, Yorke's vocals don't necessarily get the top-layer treatment this time, and I'm quite fond of how they nestle inside the track as opposed to standing above it. Dropped follows on with more a clarity to Atoms' synthesis, Godrich's skills at multi-tasking layers and bringing a sense of manner and control to the table coming up trumps in this track. But despite this, Yorke's vocals don't necessarily add anything to the mix - words stretched and expressed in longer durations than previous. And even away from vocals, I'm not exactly compelled or soaked into how jagged and more pulsating the synthesizers are in this track, probably because the occasional off-shoot of doesn't break off or even draw the track away from this heavily percussive lead it keeps at its front, throughout.

This leads me then to one of the ignorable faults of this record, and something that I can't possibly ignore, even if deep-down, I really want to. With Unless, Yorke favors rhythm objectively - and clearly visibly - over anything else. The percussion comes in very sharp and quick - hits minutely direct and almost stinging in their deliverance. Unfortunately, given how the track appears to want the listener to take notice of all the other sounds around it: radiating brass-like synths, quirky mechanic al computer chirps, ear-widening bass. It all feels a little too much, not because the instrumentation choice is wrong, but rather the continual emphasis on percussion ends up making the track an impossibility to focus on everything going on at the same time. And given how dominating the percussion is here, you feel perhaps the other instrumentation occurring here, is ultimately just wasted substance. It's sad because I ultimately feel Yorke intent to supply drums - or rather, drum machines and synthetic percussion - ends up defining, rather than adding to, the track's overall expression. A track like Stuck Together Pieces does improve my perception in that the guitars - bass and electric alike - are a lot more intrinsic and crucial to the track's rhythmic appeal. It's given some breathing space, and while the percussion still feels emphasized and intentionally placed more forward than perhaps what's needed, at least here, the repetitiveness doesn't overly ruin what the accompanying instrumentation is trying to provide.

Thom Yorke's appeal and affection from his listeners - especially on a work like this - isn't, however, his lenience on withdrawing his love of percussion and beats. Rather, it's the variance and shift in perspective he works to when an album requires it from him. Judge, Jury & Executioner sees this album, in effect, change course and finds the sounds coming off as more a collective agreeing rather than a Yorke-led compliance. The bass guitar is the star of this synthesized show and it's the instrument's onomatopoeia-like tone, as if mimicking human tones that matches well with the track's up-down indecisiveness. So too Yorke offers that new-found life - cast brightly by the track's chambered sail of voices in the backdrop - into the track with his wavy flicker of vocals. The wing-spanning shake of 'When darkness follows/And no tomorrows/It's all been decided' meets the somber tide of acoustic guitars that add a tender human and organic dialogue in contrast to the album's overly synthetic monologue of machines and percussion. Likewise, I'm inclined to show a similarly human fondness for Reverse Running's use of light piano chords and secretive utterances of guitars and backing vocals, even if the drums are a little more unstable and unpredictable in where it is they're going to land on the panoramic spectrum of the composition.

The self-titled closer is possibly the most interesting - by in large for what it shows on its urface - of the nine tracks on the album, primarily for how vacated and inclined it is to be placed surreally more than likely in a mall arcade at one point, and a disco in another. What starts as an energetic, upbeat 8-bit nostalgia soon conjures up a distancing earthly stream of suburban surroundings and richly tense reminders that Yorke is best at streaming into visual form. It's the darkly dry-winded projection that occurs on the track, matched by Flea's bass patterns and Yorke's gentle vocal accompaniment, that gives the title track a sort of reflective summing-up realization, as if everything has been merely flash-backs (or flash-forwards) to what is now a current scenario. Yorke's vocals too feel a lot more focused and clear to point out the facts, and the electronics clearly share that same mustering for visuals - electronics glittering and glazing amid the tremor of bass and piano alike. And altogether, within its clogged, muddied, frosted palette of instruments and percussion alike, the picture is paint - while not entirely political or even crude in its context - is possibly the closest we've come to Atoms' reaching for a subject matter or a means to project their sounds into visual and contextual form.

One of the comments I need to raise however, as many will have already pondered over - possibly already assumed either from what's come before it or simply on the basis that they have a very strong opinion on the matter - is whether or not AMOK stands for more than just simply Thom Yorke trying his hand at another solo effort. While Atom For Peace's debut doesn't really show the worthy credit and merits as his more-merited group records, I wouldn't necessarily say this is 100% Yorke with four other members simply filling in the gaps. True, Yorke does add a lot to the finished product in his playful, testing view on what electronics and which synthesized textures stand the tallest on the tracks we're given. But there's enough here to suggest Flea or Godrich, hell even the other two members Joey Waronker & Mauro Refosco, are showing enough confidence to throw their physical presence into the ring. The album's falter then lies with its decreed emphasis on percussion, and while I feel it works better in Atom's context than a Radiohead one, there are at times where I feel the listener will frown or maybe be put-off by Yorke's unjustifiable focus on percussion. In conflicting measure however, there is plenty to suggest the front-man has found the ideal melting pot for his more electronically-driven ideas to stir and mix into. And the tracks that do justice for Atom For Peace's debut suggest this is more than some side project. This is indeed as much a band, as it is an idea.


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Discovery: Atoms For Peace - AMOK
Atoms For Peace - AMOK
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