Music journalist Tom Breihan once posited that Talking Heads frontman David Byrne would collaborate with anyone for “a half-empty bag of Doritos”. Under Breihan’s sarcasm lies the assumption that truly great artists have a relentless need to create. Thom Yorke has been increasingly prolific in his extra-curricular output, with his mother-band Radiohead having already primed itself for eternal success. He has worked alongside Björk and PJ Harvey in years gone by, but it’s Yorke’s recent collaborations with Flying Lotus, Four Tet and Burial which have highlighted his desire to explore the increasingly blurry boundary between EDM and the more traditional “band” structure of guitar, drums and bass.
Atoms For Peace is very much a Thom Yorke project – his vocals are in the foreground of the mix on Amok, and the skeletal sound of his 2006 solo release The Eraser resonates throughout it, along with the intermittent glitches of Radiohead’s Kid A and the bass-driven grooves of The King of Limbs. Atoms’ bassist Flea (of Red Hot Chili Peppers) and Nigel Godrich (Radiohead’s producer and founding member of Ultraísta) bring some afrobeat sensibilities, nodding to the work of Fela Kuti, and helping Amok to create an intricately detailed and heavily layered aesthetic.
The syncopated beats and stilted counter-melodies heard throughout Amok always roll together quite smoothly, somehow – all part of the Atoms’ magic, I suppose. There isn’t a consistent focus on dynamics, with most of the songs on the 9-track album working around only a few hypnotic grooves, so the focus shifts to how well the band build, mix and then pull apart the layers in their sound: the agitated percussion, the swells and pulses of synth, the laid-back bass lines, the silky guitar melodies and of course Yorke’s wispy vocals.
There are some welcome surprises though. The croaking synths of Ingenue are intertwined with a melody of water-drip samples, rewarding attentive listening with subtle changes in its cold and muted tones. Dropped, perhaps the most danceable track on Amok, revolves around a staggered and sharp synth hook, but develops into a chorus which showcases each of the band’s layers at full musical strength.
It’s telling that on Unless Yorke sings in drawn-out syllables “I couldn’t care less / Such a mess” because this is the sentiment that Amok leaves listeners hanging onto: you can’t fix all the world’s problems, so don’t dwell on them. It’s clear that the Atoms For Peace collective have set out to enjoy their well-earned creative freedoms, and their enjoyment shines through even on this first full-length release.
When asked to compare Atoms For Peace to Radiohead during a recent Reddit ‘Ask Me Anything’ session, Yorke and Godrich noted that Atoms is “like eating ice cream after a lovely dinner”. Somehow, that simple little analogy sums it up perfectly – Atoms fans have received their just desserts.