AS Radiohead acolytes will already be aware, Thom Yorke has been seeing other musicians since the release of their most recent album, The King Of Limbs.
Atoms For Peace: Amok
XL recordings, £11.99
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Most notably, he has kept up his long-running musical affair with producer Nigel Godrich, who in turn is a member of another band, Ultraista. Just as well that Atoms For Peace, their non-Radiohead collaboration, is described as an “ongoing and open-ended project”.
The roots of the project lie in Yorke’s decision to play his 2006 solo album The Eraser live. He formed a band with Godrich on keyboards and such profligate collaborators as Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea and REM/Beck drummer Joey Waronker. Flea brought the Chili Peppers’ Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco to the party and the ensemble went on to have as much fun as one could reasonably imagine Thom Yorke having – to wit, “getting together, getting wasted and listening to Fela Kuti”. Nice work if you can get it.
Amok took three days to record and two years to piece together – which confirms, if there was ever any doubt, that Yorke is allergic to anything that might sound like a conventional rock record. Where the band’s initial challenge with the Eraser gigs was to recreate Yorke’s electronic laptop compositions for live performance, that process is reversed here.
First came the supergroup jam session, providing the raw material which Yorke and Godrich meticulously manipulated in the studio afterwards to create the desired “mix of live and machine”. It’s the old Kraftwerk idea of the Man Machine – minus the irresistible tunes to draw in the listener, it must be said – with Yorke in the role of conductor/mad scientist, deciding which body parts fit best with the digital exoskeleton.
While the album cover features a strong, striking geometric pattern, the resulting contents are considerably more slippery, offering nothing as crazed as the title might suggest and nothing which couldn’t conceivably have found its way on to a Radiohead release sometime in the past decade.
Opening track Before Your Very Eyes… is as hypnotic and ethereal as anything Radiohead have done in years. A repetitive rhythmic guitar is matched with those signature skittering drum patterns to create a trebly version of Afrobeat, and Yorke emotes gracefully and languorously over the top about “time’s fickle card game” like a mournful guru as the backing track becomes an increasingly mercurial mesh of buzzing electronica.
Default is a less cohesive mix of low-frequency drone and some fetching analogue synth chord changes. Yorke’s ghostly falsetto moans are more compelling than such clichéd turns of phrase as “the will is strong but the flesh is weak … I made my bed, I’m lying in it”. In fact, his wordless utterances throughout the album are just as effective as any recognisable lyric. His sorrowful legato phrasing is not so much a cathartic outpouring as an additional instrument to play with and an obvious way to inject melody into the furrowed-brow proceedings.
Yorke has said he would have preferred not to sing at all on the album, but felt that it was expected of him. Indeed, from those lyrics you can discern that he doesn’t have anything particular to say – unlike on The Eraser, whose Harrowdown Hill, inspired by the suicide of Dr David Kelly, he described as the angriest song he had ever written.
This lyrical lassitude reaches a low on Unless, on which Yorke shrugs “such a mess … I couldn’t care less” over some stately synth chords. Reverse Running features one of his most distinct vocals but is also one of the most navel-gazing numbers on the album. When he sings “it makes me feel energised”, he sounds anything but. Halfway through the track, the vocals are blended and manipulated to produce an effect akin to throat singing.
Still, it is just as well Yorke chose to open his mouth on Amok, or we would be left listening to the drip-drip sound of synthesised percussion on Ingenue or the cerebral blend of scampering drums and subtle bass on Dropped without any emotional shading or character.
As for the character of the musicians, Flea’s lithe bass playing is given more prominence on Stuck Together Pieces, where it is coupled with a shuffly beat reminiscent of Sly & Robbie’s work on Pull Up To The Bumper and a needling but curiously funky guitar line. Having created one of the more winning combinations on the album, Yorke goes for mantra over melody. His singing is even more rhythmic on Judge, Jury & Executioner, contrasting with the layered lamentation of his own backing chorus, but by this point the atmospheric effect is wearing thin.
Like My Bloody Valentine’s new album, the novelty of fresh fare from Thom Yorke is diluted by the feeling that we’ve been here before, to more engaging effect.