When Thom Yorke of Radiohead fame decided to tour in support of his solo album The Eraser back in 2009, he wanted to move away from the laptop-and-turntable dynamics of prior shows in favor of a fuller sound. To accomplish this, he enlisted the help of Radiohead’s producer Nigel Godrich and Red Hot Chili Pepper’s bassist Flea. While jamming out during rehearsal sessions, Yorke liked the sound so much that he suggested that the trio to write new material, present it on the tour, and eventually release it as an album. Yorke christened the group Atoms for Peace after one of the track names from The Eraser and recorded an entire album from material improvised over three days in the studio.
Four years later, Atoms for Peace has finally dropped its debut album, Amok, an experimental collection of electronic rock songs comprising wails from an apocalyptic future eerily similar to the one depicted on Kid A. However, much unlike Radiohead’s great foray into the realm of electronica, Amok never slows down for a second. The cover art by Stanley Donwood, portraying L.A. under a reign of blazing comets, only heightens the suggestion that this album was meant to soundtrack the Rapture.
“Before Your Very Eyes…,” Yorke’s first step into this groovy hell-on-earth atmosphere, is a frantic alarm system warning us of the fiery destruction we’ll soon face unless we slow down and appreciate the life we’re given. Yorke’s vocals, which croon and swell early on, are eventually layered over with a muffled wail that, when paired with the tin-can-sounding clatter in the background, makes the piece feel like a rushed national anthem.
“Ingenue” depicts what can only be described as the pitter-patter of rain in an empty cave echoing across the entire song, emphasizing the desolate landscape of a post-apocalyptic world. However, after the first three or so songs, the album starts focusing more on Flea’s bass, although it’s certainly hard to differentiate between what is produced by man and what by machine. Yet, at its core, that’s what makes the album so gorgeous in its framework. The only constant throughout everything is Yorke’s falsetto. As he cries out in “Dropped” that he “[doesn’t] want to start,” it almost seems as though those very words are what trigger Flea’s violent entrance, pushing the song forward to a chaotic finale that bleeds into “Unless,” a creepy church organ ballad that quickly disintegrates into the album’s darkest moment. By the end you can’t help but dance your ass off.
The most significant moment for Flea lies in “Stuck Together Pieces.” Sure to become a fan favorite, the song opens with a simple looping beat that quickly becomes secondary once the hard bass joins in to drive the intro into the chorus, which seems to take some influence from Radiohead’s “Reckoner.” With Red Hot Chili Peppers, Flea is the unsung motor of each song. This time around, he serves the same purpose but on a more sedated level. His moments of harsh and deep hidden rhythms are much more subtle and gentle, but, when coupled with the electronic realm of each song, he becomes the pilot steering a missile into the sun, waiting for it to erupt into hushed wonder.
It’s almost impossible not to compare Amok to Yorke’s The Eraser, and rightly so. The album is essentially just a more evolved and more electronic-driven version of the first. “A pawn into a queen,” as the lead single “Default” so aptly describes evolution over time. Amok even goes beyond Radiohead’s most recent product, 2011’s The King of Limbs. But despite how similar it sounds to Radiohead (mostly because of Yorke’s unmistakable voice), comparison to them is truly unjust. Amok is an entirely different beast and more of an outlet for Thom and crew to experiment with a unique sound that neither him nor Flea would dare try to do with their respective main bands.
Yorke has stated multiple times that the album was meant to be performed live and that the only way to truly experience the full sound would be to see both man and machine create the music right before your eyes. For the time being, headphones will have to suffice.