Though constantly billed as a 'supergroup' —due to the proximity of Thom Yorke and Flea, two members of the kind of monstrous rock bands that sit atop summer-festival bills— Atoms for Peace barely fit the bill. This isn't some collection of celebrities involved in a communal goof-off, but something that sounds more like a band, in the modern sense. As in: it takes its cues from its leader, with the supporting players little more than that.
This makes all to much sense, given the backstory. Atoms for Peace were initially a band without a name. At the 2010 Coachella festival, they were literally billed on the poster as ??????, suggesting the fact that this entity —first formed to bring Yorke's solo LP, 2006's The Eraser, to life— was becoming its own band, only its own identity was unformed.
Whether their own identity, as Atoms for Peace, is now fully-formed may be a matter of interpretation. The release of Amok, their debut album, cements them as a band with their own sound, songs, and place in the world, but it also sounds so familiar as to make their uniqueness seems not so unique. In short: with Yorke's unmistakable voice floating out high and eerie over clattering electronics, scuttling, insectile rhythms, and skittering polyrhythms —and with Nigel Godrich both playing on and producing the LP— Amok sounds as much like Radiohead as Radiohead themselves.
This leaves Amok in an unenviable —if not inevitable— critical place: stuck being constantly compared to something else. These reviews are fun to neither read nor write; a tedious exercise in compare/contrast that doesn't capture the music, nor engage critically.
And, if somehow listened to in a vacuum —free from the scourge of comparison— there's no doubt that Amok is a beautiful, strange, puzzling object. Yorke's voice is a familiar friend, yet there are still times it sounds alienating; is pitched at an unfamiliar angle, hits a slurring, sighing register we've yet to hear.
His voice is the star of the show: "The seeds of the dandelion/you know blow away," he sings, in the tenderest, frailest falsetto, mid-"Ingenue," providing an aching, human counterpoint to the complex pitter-patter of electro-babble underneath. The rhythms tend to feel a little more forceful than Yorke's solo record; the band's two percussionists, Mauro Refosco and Joey Waronker, driving things forward with human grunt added to mechanised clank; the bassplaying of Flea gently forceful (and, on songs like the groovy "Stuck Together Pieces" and jazz-nerdy "Reverse Running," up loud in the mix).
A simple reading of Amok could be that it is a groovier record; but, given Radiohead's last LP, The King of Limbs gave the world "Lotus Flower" —and the amazing dancing of Yorke in the video— that's not entirely apt. Instead, it feels like a jammier record; one that's, for all its complexities, almost relaxed in feeling. Yorke infamously called the making of Amok "the product of getting together, getting wasted and listening to Fela Kuti," and, whilst there's little here that sounds anything like a righteous Afrobeat record, the feeling of stoned contentment persists.
The lyrics contrast that mood. They are the stuff of discontentment: "you got me into this mess so you get me out" ("Ingenue"); "it doesn't mean anything" ("Reverse Running"); "in darkness follows no tomorrows" ("Judge Jury Executioner"). But, if you're looking for something to differentiate Atoms for Peace from Yorke's regular rockbound, the lyrics aren't the place. And, instead, those good grooves are: Yorke sounding, here, even if just musically, quite content.
Release Date: February 26, 2013