Monday, May 27, 2013

Album Review: Atoms For Peace – Amok (2013)

Atoms For Peace is the current side project for Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, and the band includes talented friends like Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, and sometime Beck and REM drummer Joey Waronker. Yorke initially formed the group as a nameless live/touring act back around 2009, and the long-time-in-coming debut album, Amok, says Yorke, was “the product of getting together, getting wasted, and listening to Fela Kuti” ...

The first couple of times I listened to Amok, it just sort of washed over me. It felt a little bit inconsequential, like well produced background music, and it barely registered at all. On first impression, the album was little more than a blurry montage of glitchy twitchy sounds, with an ethereal Thom Yorke vocal wailing indecipherably over the top. And while it had a persistent percussive pulse underpinning the whole thing, there just didn’t appear to be all that much substance beneath the exterior sheen.
Then I heard it through headphones, and the album instantly took on a different hue.

The intimacy of the headphone experience exposed a work of depth and detail that wasn’t initially even hinted at. Rather than the distant distraction it first appeared to be, Amok revealed itself to be a carefully crafted gem, an album that draws heavily from elements of synthpop, electronica, and afrobeat to create an almost perfect pop hybrid. And all of those minor details lost upon the first couple of listens immediately became features ... highlights even.

That shared love of afrobeat (and rhythm in general) shines brightly on Amok. There’s a strong synth/electronic presence throughout, but mostly the music is propelled by a nagging bass and multiple layers of percussion. The other major player in the band is the Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco, and it is Refosco’s best work that tends to stand out on an album that simply oozes forward momentum.

It all feels very polished (thanks, presumably, to Godrich), and in the end, even Yorke’s occasionally annoying mumble-come-moan becomes a pivotal part of the music. There’s a barely disguised simplicity about it, and perhaps even something a little magical about the way vocal FX are employed on a couple of tracks. Seldom has Thom Yorke’s voice proved more engaging over the full-length course. While some of his fretwork isn’t half bad either.
When Yorke released his first “solo” album, The Eraser, back in 2006, it continued an electronica path Radiohead had already long been exploring, and as highly rated as that album was by others at the time, I had huge difficulty separating the work of Thom Yorke, the solo artist, from that of Radiohead, the band. But that’s definitely not the case here. With Atoms For Peace, I’m somehow able to get beyond the Radiohead thing, and for whatever reason, this band feels much less a side project, and something way more rewarding in its own right.

Running time is 44 minutes over the course of nine tracks, the best of which are: opener ‘Before Your Very Eyes’ (clip below), first single 'Default’, ‘Ingenue’, ‘Judge Jury And Executioner’, and ‘Amok’.

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