This record has been a long time coming. Atoms for Peace initially began when (Radiohead’s) Thom Yorke took his solo record on tour. The band’s sound adopted a good deal from Yorke’s solo album THE ERASER: it’s sometimes paranoid, sometimes jittery, sometimes claustrophobic. If Yorke’s name wasn’t enough, Atoms for Peace sure has the pedigree of a great band: (The Red Hot Chili Peppers’) Flea commands the bass, (Ultraista and Radiohead’s producer) Nigel Godrich plays guitar, (Ultraista and Beck) drummer Joey Waronker provides half of the percussion with Mauro Refosco laying down most of the electronic beats. The band’s music is an interesting mix of electronic and material music, a nd it is often hard to tell where the real percussion stops and the electronic percussion begins.
Some of this material is pretty old, and band members have hinted that they have been sitting on it for a while now before its release. “Judge, Jury, and Executioner” was debuted in 2009 (it shares no relation with the similar Radiohead song). AMOK was created within a handful of days – the writing process for the band started with all musicians in the studio, free-form jamming without creating “takes” or stopping. Afterwards, the hours of material that they created was gleaned through, and the members picked out parts they thought were particularly interesting or beautiful. This makes for a great academic exercise, but what about a great music-listening experience?
The problem with AMOK is also its strength. The album is concerned primarily with being interesting: achieving new sounds, creating strange transitions, using instrumentation in different ways. The chief concern here is not the listener. Many of these songs are pleasant, but they often lack the melody that will keep you coming back for more. It reminds me a good deal of Radiohead’s last record, THE KING OF LIMBS, which was often jittery and songs sometimes lacked a clear throughline. Now, of course, all music doesn’t need to be a verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus traditional song, but the real joy of AMOK comes from approaching the music in a cerebral way. This isn’t good background music, but it is good music to find yourself in if you’re willing to. If you are a listener that appreciates the way music is put together, there’s a lot on this record that you may find of intrigue.
It’s hard not to compare this Atoms for Peace record in the grand scale of Radiohead/Thom Yorke projects – in many ways, it is truly its own beast. Even though there will be plenty of sounds that you’ve heard before in past records, there’s enough new stuff here to keep listeners guessing and interested. The album opens with “Before Your Very Eyes,” and it’s a perfect example of what listeners are in for: the song begins with a shaky guitar-riff that twists and turns into an electronic sound, and it’s heard to distinguish when one sound ceases and another begins – there’s so much going on, so many layers, that you can pick up on new pieces with each listen. “Dropped” gives a stuttering synth that opens up over Mauro Refosco’s percussion. “Unless” sounds like a cut from Yorke’s THE ERASER. Some songs never really quite congeal: “Reverse Running,” “Judge, Jury, and Executioner,” and “Ingenue” generally stick with a musical idea throughout their duration, but they seem to be AMOK’s weakest tracks.
Overall, AMOK didn’t hit all of the right spots for me. It’s a good record, and it’s definitely worth a listen, but it’s hard for me to believe that someone would opt for this over Flying Lotus, or other Radiohead albums. If you’re looking for a good electronic band inspired by Afrobeat, I would recommend Joey Waronker & Nigel Godrich’s other band, Ultraista. Ultraista is a bit more accessible, and a bit more poppy; it may not be as interesting, but it’s a more enjoyable record for my money.
Songs to sample/download: “Default”, “Before Your Very Eyes”, “Stuck Together Pieces.”