Yep, it’s that time again! The time when Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich drop another album and blow any lingering competition out of the water. Together with Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, as well as Ultraísta (and plenty more) drummer Joey Waronker and percussionist Mauro Refosco, we get Atoms for Peace, a painfully brilliant quintet that you wouldn’t want to follow up for anything. They first got together in 2009 to bring Thom Yorke’s 2006 solo record The Eraser to the stage. But even back then, the five were writing tunes together, debuting “Judge, Jury, and Executioner” back in 2010. AMOK reaches us presently, the group’s first effort as a collaborative. As Thom puts it in his interview with Rolling Stone, “When we first hung out, we were at Flea’s house. We got wasted, played pool and listened to Fela Kuti all night.” The product is just about the best possible soundtrack to this chilled-out supergroup bonding time.
If there’s one thing a night of drinks, billiard games, and Fela Kuti have in commmon, it’s groove. This is something that AMOK has ample supply of. It’s not a showy record at all, really. In fact, perhaps the biggest show off track (at least for Flea), “What The Eyeballs Did,” didn’t even make the LP (it’s the B-side to the “Default” single. Listen below). Much like Yorke’s The Eraser, AMOK lives and breathes as one cohesive mental thought, metamorphosed into a 44 minute masterpiece. Minus the cover art, that’s about where the connections between The Eraser and AMOK end. Yorke has been pretty in the dark about what place AMOK has in his larger discography, but frankly (especially after his and Nigel’s humorously uninformative Reddit AMA), it doesn’t really look like he cares. In his own cryptic words, “it’s on the far right of the pile.” But really, the best way to interpret AMOK may be to just take it at face value. To use another AMA quote, “We are in the moment when we work!” Thom’s solo discography is ridiculously varied, from the incomprehensible bleeps and bloops of “Cymbal Rush” to the dark, forward thinking “Feelingpulledapartbyhorses,” he’s one step ahead of all of us. He’s made it ok to write songs for Twilight soundtracks and paid homage to an underrated songwriter best known for his work on a Nickelodeon TV show and written atonal music for fashion shows and everything in between. After collaborations with Modeselektor and Flying Lotus and Burial & Four Tet, perhaps he just wanted to take a break from the dub world and groove in the daylight again. AMOK is simply the next step in a winding path of breadcrumbs through a forest that only he really understands.
But of course, that’s not to overemphasize Yorke’s importance in Atoms for Peace, while he is the ringleader, AMOK isn’t a showcase for some heartfelt collection of intimate solo recordings - it’s recorded evidence of a great jam session between insanely talented artists who also happen to get along. While we are all avid fans of Colin Greenwood, it’s fun to hear Flea bring a unique energy to AMOK. On afro-beat themed “Before Your Very Eyes...,” Flea’s driving bass line compliment’s Yorke’s guitars in perfect counterpart, giving this skittering opener a definitive form. In other places, the bass-work may be slightly obscured by electronic filters, but there’s no question that he’s throwing down, especially on watery “Ingenue.” When AMOK backs off from the synthesizers, we get some incredibly organic grooves, seen best on “Stuck Together Pieces.” Elsewhere, descriptor adjectives don’t do Atoms for Peace justice. The acoustic throw-down of “Jury, Jury, and Executioner” is in a world of its own, and unique melancholy of “Reverse Running” is almost unparalleled in the group’s collaborative discography. But after taking you on emotional highs (the shimmering chorus of “Default” which just begs to explode) and lows (the creepy-crawly jam of “Unless”, on which Thom repeats over and over “I couldn’t care less” as the band clambers through a painfully confusing synchronicity), AMOK exits through same mysterious mist from whence it came. The title-track closer finds Flea alternating back and forth between high and low registers as Nigel spins an Ultraísta-esque web of textures behind Yorke’s omnipresent vocals.
I’m positive I’ve left details out, and just like every record from Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich, after another 200 listens or so, I’m sure I’ll have a totally different opinion about it. But one thing is for sure: AMOK is not to be missed. It’s an early highlight of 2013 and an easy highlight of these fine artists’ collections. AMOK is streaming in full on the Atoms for Peace website. It is available February 26th in the US on CD, special edition CD (with which you’ll receive a shiny metallic fold-out of Stanley Donwood’s excellent artwork akin to the CD packaging for The Eraser), and vinyl. So far, the band has only announced shows in London, Berlin, and New York, but the band has hinted at more soon to come.