Monday, March 4, 2013

ALBUM REVIEW: Atoms for Peace - Amok


By Danny Spiteri.

Radiohead have become known for their commitment to constant reinvention, assuming multiple distinct sonic identities over the course of their career. The most drastic shift they have undergone, of course, is their transition from primarily rock instrumentation to an electronic foundation between 1997’s wildly successful OK Computer and 2000’s similarly lauded Kid A. Since then, the band has continued to explore different angles of their electronic influence, allowing it to manifest itself to varying degrees throughout each entry in their discography. The artists who inform the group’s sound tend to be put under the always evolving umbrella of IDM, the loose blanket term used to describe electronic artists too expansive to be labeled with a more specific subgenre but too grounded to be called strictly “experimental.” Frontman Thom Yorke has expressed a particularly significant amount of interest in the genre, even releasing his own solo record of IDM-pop hybrids in 2006 with The Eraser. His involvement in the scene has become progressively higher lately, with collaborations with Burial, Four Tet, Flying Lotus, and Modeselektor; the release of a two-disc remix album of the band’s latest LP, which employed many of alternative electronic music’s biggest names; and cameos at Los Angeles’ Low End Theory club each occurring over the course of the past two years. Concurrently, the movement has experienced its own changes, with today’s Flying Lotus and Actress bearing little resemblance to yesterday’s Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada. With this in mind, it is not difficult to understand Thom Yorke’s association with it; he is not one to be satisfied with stagnation, and IDM is hardly a fixed term, instead continuing to offer a relatively consistent stream of forward-moving ideas.

Thom’s latest outing involves a fairly new project, one which has existed since late 2009, but is only now releasing its debut full-length LP. Atoms for Peace names longtime Radiohead collaborator Nigel Godrich, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, drummer Joey Waronker, and Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco as its members, and yet, though they should not be discredited, it feels largely like Thom Yorke’s vision. In concept, Amok is not very far removed from The Eraser, pairing Thom’s ghostly, often chopped vocals with calculated IDM production. It feels very much like a product of his interest in that genre, allowing him to express it more directly than he has perhaps been able to in Radiohead. The unfortunate truth of Amok is that it eschews the sense of exploration that makes IDM so revitalizing. Like its black-and-white cover art, it feels like a coloring book that has not been colored in; the framework for interesting instrumentals is there, but the sounds which comprise it are too inherently safe and lacking in personality to be memorable on their own. Whereas Radiohead succeeds by incorporating their influences in such a way that elevates them to feel like logical elements of the band’s unique identity, Atoms for Peace’s music seems like little more than a simplified summary of a genre.

Generally underwhelming sound aside, Amok does have a small handful of sonic flairs under its belt. Flea’s bass lines, though never especially prominent, are appropriately melodic, providing especially engaging lines on tracks like “Stuck Together Pieces” and “Before Your Very Eyes.” The percussion also asserts fittingly dense rhythms, which are complemented particularly well by the tastefully executed odd time signatures of “Judge, Jury and Executioner” and “Dropped.” The sounds, albeit generic, are certainly well-crafted and pleasant despite being generally unadventurous. There are also the occasional exceptions, such as the uneasy synth lead of “Ingenue” and the buzzing atmospherics near the end of “Reverse Running.”

Thom Yorke’s voice is another notable asset to Amok. His haunting falsetto is an excellent counterpart to the record’s cold electronics, adding to its eerie atmosphere and lending it direction. Among his voice’s most effective uses are those in which it takes a backseat to its surroundings, such as the wordless harmonies which begin around the middle of “Unless” and the supporting parts on “Reverse Running.” Between moments like these and those which feature his vocals in a lead role, Thom proves his versatility and malleability as a vocalist. Less consistently appealing, however, is this album’s songwriting. Oftentimes, the vocal melodies feel impersonal, leaving some of these songs to feel simply like exercises in tame experimentation rather than relatable compositions. There are plenty of moments which do more to connect on this level, such as “Ingenue,” “Reverse Running,” and “Default,” which each possess relatively strong melodies and moving progressions, but deep emotional resonance is fleeting.

Atoms for Peace is a project with potential, for Thom Yorke certainly bears a number of fascinating influences, and it is no secret that the man has enjoyed heaps of success in Radiohead. However, the ambition of his work in that band, as well as that of his inspirations, fails to match the rich possibilities brought on by his well-deserved stature. Although Amok is certainly competent, ranging from decent to very impressive throughout its nine tracks, it never quite takes the sort of risk that could elevate it further. It feels as if Thom Yorke has gathered a handful of other talented artists to carry out a vision that lives within the confines of his comfort zone, and while that is a fairly appealing place to be, it ultimately offers nothing essential to the current musical landscape.

Score: Light 7/10

- Danny (I liked this album, but I didn't love it. By the laws of being a music fan, does not loving any album made by Thom Yorke qualify as treachery? If so, feel free to prosecute me on Tumblr.)

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