Now here’s a hard one. Though, as I kept having to remind myself while wading through this album’s murky depths, if it had been easy, Thom Yorke—notably of Radiohead—wouldn’t have made it.
The record in question is “AMOK,” the debut record of Atoms for Peace, one of those supergroups that refuses to call itself a supergroup. The band takes its name both from a 1953 speech by President Eisenhower and a song title on Yorke’s 2006 album, “The Eraser.” The musicians that comprise the band were even commissioned to play Yorke’s solo material live, for which Atoms for Peace were originally billed as “Thom Yorke???” during Coachella in 2010.
This naming makes sense: “AMOK” sounds like a vanity project of Yorke, his ethereal whisper the cohesive element to the album’s otherwise frenetic electronic jumble. Normally, vanity projects represent the worst work of an artist looking for vindication outside a certain genre. In the hands of anyone but music’s greatest living crotchety-bastard legend, “AMOK” would be an album of pathetic excess. Instead, we get an impenetrable piece filled with jumbled beeps on a time signature even Battles would have a hard time keeping up with. My first bit of advice: listen to this with headphones in. The second bit: don’t expect a Radiohead album.
This is harder than it seems. The shuffle of “Default” sounds like a tripped-out version of the already tripped-out “In Rainbows” opener, “15 Step.” “Stuck Together Pieces” has a guitar jangle reminiscent of the soothing melody of “Reckoner.” And what ties it all together is Yorke’s voice, the angelic falsetto that every adolescent who’s ever felt marginalized has come to associate with solace in the face of alienation.
After all, “AMOK” is produced by Nigel Godrich, the wizard behind every Radiohead masterpiece since “OK Computer” and “The King of Limbs.” At its most self-indulgent, “AMOK” plays like the little brother of “TKOL” who has been listening to too much house music. The seething mass of layered vocals, muted hand claps, and electronic bloops gives the record a cold and inorganic feel with no easy entry points for listening (and without the “I-for-one-welcome-our-new-robot-overlords” despair of “Kid A,” either).
There are a lot of apt metaphors for the dense textures of “AMOK.” The band’s website ,from which I am streaming the album, for instance, features warped images of web pages having seizures against a black background, which could be a music video for the equally schizophrenic song “Unless.” I have half a mind to start the rumor that this music inspired Thom Yorke’s infamous marionette dance in “Lotus Flower.” Alternatively, one could describe “AMOK” as the melodic equivalent of Donnie’s ADD jabber from The Wild Thornberrys—voiced by none other than Flea, Atoms for Peace’s bassist.
This indeed might have been Flea’s greatest contribution. His funky basslines, which make any Red Hot Chili Pepper’s song instantly listenable, are all but absent on “AMOK.” I wanted to hear Flea play his version of “The National Anthem” or “I Might Be Wrong,” wielding his bass as only he knows how. But that would be too easy: Yorke hired Flea and then relegated him to the background to explore texture over riffs.
The result is an album that sounds like it was produced by a series of loops, not living, breathing members of Radiohead, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and R.E.M. Yorke confounds our expectations again, making us reconsider what it means to be a band when you’re so on-tempo that you sound artificial. But Yorke has written songs that even as mechanized itches draw you back in for additional listens. “AMOK” is many things—but boring is not one of them.