The label of ‘supergroup’ is a problematic one. Surely any band worth describing as ‘super’ (like my nan would) is surely a ‘supergroup’ regardless of who the members are. Atoms For Peace, the Thom Yorke initiated project – originally arranged to play his solo effort The Eraser live – is both a ‘supergroup,’ in music-lingo terms as well as downright ‘super.’ The liner notes of AMOK reads as a list of some the most integral musicians of the modern era: Flea, Nigel Godrich, Joey Waronker, Mauro Refosco as well as the Radiohead frontman. Not all of these names are familiar; however, if the works of Elliot Smith, REM, David Byrne, Beck or Brian Eno strike a chord, you can be sure these guys had something to do with it.
The usual worry of any collaboration like this is so often the egos involved. The finished project tends to be a compromised mishmash of two very distinct but distant styles; notably, the Jack White/Alison Mosshart mediocre-fest of The Dead Weather. There is a sense on AMOK that Yorke always had control. In Radiohead, his fellow band members would describe Yorke as the Unites States in the band’s United Nations, i.e. he gets his way. That dynamic seems in play here too. Flea, though a monumental musician, must have leased creative control to the time-tested pairing of Yorke and Godrich. Perhaps this is why AMOK feels like such a natural progression from their last non-Radiohead project of The Eraser.
And like The Eraser, AMOK blurs the line between synthetic sound and live instruments. The polyrhythms that result are some of Yorke’s most layered; his thin guitar lines contrast with Flea’s deep, rolling bass lines creating a satisfying jam. There is never the sense that either of their styles have been compromised. This is clearest on the album’s keystone track ‘Stuck Together Pieces’ in which Flea’s bass groove cascades down every bar of the song. However, after such promising gigs in 2010, the beats do seem a little fixed and somewhat too synthetic unlike the gigs. The rhythms – something of an obsession for Thom Yorke – are brittle, quick and repetitive to provide a solid bedding for Yorke’s falsetto. The lack of tempo change within songs suggests he perhaps limited Refosco and Waronker too much.
Likewise, Yorke has not experimented with the lower register of his voice in ways he has shown us before in tracks such as ‘Skip Divided’ from The Eraser. He sticks to his signature lilt and beautiful as it may be, after forty-five minutes I’m craving his mean side – the one you’d see in ‘Myxomatosis’ or ‘A Wolf At The Door.’ Nonetheless, his voice on AMOK is his UPS and his vocalised anxiety in, say, the singles ‘Default’ and ‘Judge, Jury and Executioner’ do remind me exactly why I love his singing; it’d probably be a little churlish to expect more.
There is a lot more of Godrich’s synth-work to be found in some of the most layered tracks such as album’s eponymous track and ‘Before your Very Eyes.’ In some ways the multitude of beats seems like a ‘wall-of-sound,’ but without the intimidating baggage a wall-of-sound usually entails. I expect the more I listen to this album, the more hidden synths lines, auxiliary drums, or discreet vocals I’m likely to find. Finding these gems never gets boring.
This album, like much of Yorke’s work, will retain much interest for a long while. My main worry is this: when the band plays these songs live, with the energy of Yorke, Flea et al., how tame does the album risk looking? It is devoid of much of the melancholia of his Radiohead work; he’s cut loose and having a little more fun. Perhaps, the instrumentals, too, could cut loose, be less rigid and a little more jammier. In spite of this, AMOK lives up to the expectations that only Thom Yorke, Godrich and Flea could create.
…Jeremy is listening to Van Morrison – ‘It’s Too Late To Stop Now’