New album ‘AMOK’ is an ‘intriguing listen’ but ‘far from a classic’ album
Published: Monday, March 4, 2013
Updated: Monday, March 4, 2013 00:03
Thom Yorke can do whatever he wants. I couldn’t care less. The man has been the face of Radiohead, arguably the world’s greatest rock band, for 20 years, and his tortured tenor has sound-tracked the formative teen-years of millions around the world, including my own. So laugh at his “Lotus Flower” dance video, sneer at his outspoken environmentalism, but know that he has earned the right.
My own temptation of mockery is to retch slightly at the inclusion of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea in Yorke’s new “supergroup,” Atoms for Peace. Flea joins the Radiohead frontman, as well as their esteemed producer Nigel Godrich and two percussionists known for their work with some big names, including David Byrne and R.E.M. Radiohead fans have been awaiting the star-studded group’s debut album, AMOK, for a good while, and I would venture to guess the misguided followers of the Chili Peppers are at least curious.
AMOK arrives at an interesting point in Yorke’s career – Radiohead is dealing with disappointment from fans and critics for the first time in over a decade, or perhaps ever, in response to their eighth studio album, The King of Limbs (henceforth TKOL). Though I would argue that it was underrated by the majority and overrated by its apologists in response, the point remains that their best years are most likely behind them. Granted, those years produced at least three undisputed classics, and I would argue for two more, so that news isn’t exactly catastrophic. Radiohead’s monolithic legacy, and Yorke’s to a lesser extent, is already accepted as rock-gospel.
He seems to be aware of his situation, and recent expeditions into other artistic avenues have the distinct air of freedom permeating them, starting with his quietly influential solo album, The Eraser, released in 2006. It’s surprising, to my mind, that AMOK feels just as much the embodiment of Yorke’s solo vision, if not more so – he’s joined by noteworthy helpers, but they merely facilitate the creation of a world he already envisioned, and this record is easily the farthest he has wandered from the familiar Radiohead aesthetic.
For the uninitiated who might have stumbled upon the beat-heavy, futuristic sounds of Atoms for Peace or The Eraser, it might come as a shock to learn that Radiohead, and therefore Thom Yorke, began their time in the business as pure guitar-rock evangelists. To briefly summarize one of the more interesting stories in popular music’s history: After three rock albums, two of which made them famous, they veered sharply into what would later become “their sound,” a uniquely fluid combination of rock and electronica.
The tension between those genres has played a large part in much of the appeal of their work in the last decade. The formation of Atoms for Peace is the result of that development, but it’s especially the product of Thom Yorke’s growing infatuation with electronic rhythm and texture.
Listening to his solo work, and from a cursory glance at interviews, it’s clear that he was a driving force, if not the main influence propelling Radiohead’s stylistic progression. The story goes that he became obsessed with rhythm, that he was “tired of melody,” and a startling shift in sound was the result. At best, that version of the story is oversimplified, but it’s hard to doubt the general sentiment when listening to AMOK, a rhythm-obsessed collection of tracks that borders on neurotic.
Several critics have suggested that its closest cousin is his solo album, and the choice of album art would confirm the association, but I’m most reminded of TKOL, particularly the front half in which complex, clicking rhythms dominate “Morning Mr. Magpie,” “Feral,” and “Lotus Flower.” At the absolute least, on first listen they have a remarkably similar feel, and both require an outrageous number of focused listens to leave any kind of impression. True, The Eraser is pretty rhythmic in its own right, in a straight-from-the-laptop sort of way, but its heavy employment of piano is entirely missing from AMOK, where the space is filled instead by Flea’s bass, more insistent tapping, and layers of electronically-altered vocals, with only the occasionally audible guitar.
Neither comparison is adequate, because Yorke has never made an album that sounds quite like this one. Atoms for Peace have serious groove – one might even call it a dance album, though Thom might be dancing alone – and even a hater like me will give some credit to Flea for that because Radiohead have hit that spot only rarely, one song at a time, never sustained for a full album. The Eraser and TKOL are useful reference points, but neither was as singularly focused and unified as this record.
What initially seems like a strength, that focused approach, displays its limits before long, and AMOK has a puzzling tendency to drag on its listener in spite of the constant beat-barrage. There’s little ebb and flow to this album; my gut tells me “Unless” is a source of disruption in the general arc, though I have no idea where it would fit better. More likely though, the solution isn’t a single song’s placement in the mix.
The whole thing needs a little breathing room, moments that slow it down and provide obvious contrast. Every possible climax seems to just get lost in the clutter. There are precious few arresting moments and zero songs that really take your breath away. If Yorke wants to take the focus off of his vocal melodies and lyrics, that’s his prerogative, but there’s got to be substance somewhere that any listener can connect with. Too often on AMOK, we’re expected to revel in the difficulty of complex rhythms and studio wizardry that start to feel purposeless and vapid. There’s a lot of pomp and circumstance, but not enough communicative power.