February 27, 2013

Test Spins: Atoms for Peace, Amok

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It seems a bit odd to ascribe the moniker “supergroup” to a project like Atoms for Peace. Certainly, each member is extremely well known in his own right; Thom Yorke, Radiohead’s fantastically eccentric frontman, did not skimp on talent when he formed the group in order to perform his glitchy 2006 solo effort, The Eraser, live. Besides Nigel Godrich, the recording engineer often referred to as Radiohead’s “sixth member,” Yorke recruited Flea, the sock- abusing bass-slapper of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Joey Waronker of R.E.M. and Beck and famed studio percussionist Mauro Refosco. But unlike the many ill-fated “super” collaborations of the past (which usually included Eric Clapton), or even more contemporary bands like Audioslave, the members of Atoms for Peace seem more like a group of unbelievably talented friends than a contentious whirlpool of dueling egos. As Yorke described in one interview, the group organically began to form after a few extended stays at Flea’s house, where they “got wasted, played pool and listened to Fela Kuti all night.” It’s no surprise, then, that their new release, Amok, sounds a bit like Afrobeat played in an anti-gravity chamber — and I mean that in the best way possible.The preceding analogy is an extreme simplification, of course. Like just about all of Thom Yorke’s recent ventures, Amok is dense and ambiguous, merging traditionally recorded percussion and instrumentals with tracks created digitally until the line between these two formats is blurred beyond recognition. Though this technique has been attempted by other groups, it has never felt as natural as on this release. Flea’s grooving bass lines, unusually smooth for an artist known for thumb-slapping funk, weave intricately with the ping-pong percussion, which combines traditional drums and unidentifiable electronic blips. For best results, wear a good pair of headphones: Like a vintage Bordeaux or a Rothko, these rhythmic patterns beg to be appreciated.Kuti’s influence really comes to light in these mesmerizing percussive arrangements, which sound like electronic interpretations of African drum circles. Though incredibly dense rhythmically, these arrangements become strangely  and addictively hypnotic. Unlike Radiohead’s more electronic work on Kid A or The King of Limbs, or the complex rhythms of The Eraser, these tracks at points sound almost like dance music — though any dancing to Amok will probably only be performed in the comfortable shame of one’s own room. Of course, Yorke’s aching falsetto forms a key part of Amok. When legible, his lyrics are often powerful: On “Default,” his voice soars over the track’s eerie synths as he admits, “The will is strong, but the flesh is weak. I’ve made my bed, and I’m lying in it.”  Yet, as is evident in his other recent releases, Yorke has begun to use his voice as just another instrument. On “Ingenue,” for example, his indiscernible or nonsensical vocals echo beautifully as they drift in and out between the simple electronic cries of a retro-sounding synth. At other times, particularly during the bridge of “Reverse Running,” Yorke’s voice is distorted completely, and becomes part of the rhythm section. In both cases, the vocals are insistent but quiet against the pounding of the instruments; they are meant to complement, not to overwhelm. Despite its often disjointed rhythm section and highly unorthodox use of instrumentation and vocals, Amok is sometimes, dare I say, even catchy. The heavily synthesized opening of “Dropped” builds into one of the breathtaking highlights of the album as the synth is joined by Yorke’s longing vocals, before Flea enters angrily with a chills-provoking bass line. The exhilaration of this build-up is on par with the most powerful moments of any Radiohead cut, and it showcases just why these musicians work together so well.Atoms for Peace formed out of necessity, but the result of its efforts  is incredibly promising. Each of Amok’s sonic elements work together in near-perfect harmony to create an album that works both on the track level and as a coherent whole. Significantly, the album withstands repeat after repeat, becoming more and more impressive after every listen. Though it seems impossible that any mere mortal could perform these tracks live, given how much they have already accomplished, Yorke and the rest of AfP will likely be able to beat the odds. After all, they’ve managed to make a create an album of impeccable quality and precise detail that proves (did it really need proving?) that these artists are at the top of their game.

Original Author: Sam Bromer