Debut album from Atoms for Peace refines Radiohead mold

by Kyle McGoey | 3/4/13 11:00pm

As a busy student, it can be hard to keep up with the world outside the Dartmouth bubble. On most days, scanning the front page of The Dartmouth and flipping through the Yahoo News ticker are the closest I come to remaining informed. It would be fair to say that my cultural knowledge is far from up-to-date.

But every so often, an album comes along that changes the landscape of rock music entirely, and even the most culturally ignorant of us are forced to take notice. In the last 15 years, most of those game-changers have come from one band.

From the revolutionary cut-and-paste electronic collage of 2000's "Kid A" to the groundbreaking "pay-what-you-want" online distribution system of 2007's "In Rainbows," Radiohead has lately been the preeminent innovator in modern rock.

So the news of a new album from a group led by Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke definitely caused my ears to prick up, hoping for another redefinition of what it means to make rock music in the modern era.

"Amok," the debut album from Yorke's Radiohead side project, Atoms for Peace, doesn't represent a massive stylistic leap in the same way that "Kid A" did. Instead, it takes the mold set by 2011's "The King of Limbs," which saw Radiohead ditch many of the conventions of rock songcraft in favor of a layered, groove-based approach, and refines and improves on it. While it may not break entirely new ground for Radiohead, it still sounds like nothing else out there today.

One of the biggest reasons for the success of "Amok" is the fantastic band that Yorke assembles. The roster of Atoms for Peace, whom Yorke originally enlisted for live shows of his solo effort "The Eraser," reads like the starting lineup for the Rock All-Star Games: Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, widely known as one of the best bass players in the world; session drummer Joey Waronker, who worked extensively with Beck and R.E.M.; longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, often referred to as the band's "sixth member" and Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco, who performed with the Chili Peppers on their most recent album and tour.

Live, the band was an absolute monster, bringing some much needed dynamic energy to "The Eraser"'s often static songs. Here, their collaboration in the writing and recording process allows "Amok" to establish itself from the start as an album built not on conventional hooks and lyrics, but on kinetic and muscular grooves.

"Amok" may be filed under the rock genre because of Yorke's roots in Radiohead, but in reality it skews much closer to the genre-bending electronica of artists like Four Tet, Flying Lotus and Burial, all of whom Yorke collaborated with. Dance music may have come to signify the blunt-force-trauma bass drops and cookie-cutter song structures of modern dubstep and house, but "Amok" hearkens back to the genre's underground roots with its clattering percussion, hypnotic grooves and focus on subtle evolution.

On first listen, the songs can be hard to tell apart, as each explores the same sonic ground. This is far from a bad thing; in fact, one of the best ways to enjoy the album is to sit back, relax and let the mesmerizing grooves pull you into a trance. Closer examination proves that there is plenty to distinguish each of "Amok'"s nine songs from the one before it.

"Stuck Together Pieces" is built around Flea's nimble bassline, anchoring the song in an unforgettable groove even as layers and layers of instrumentation begin to pile on top, threatening to drown Yorke's tender vocals.

The title track is an entrancing swirl with video-game synths bouncing off wordless cries as the rhythm section does its best to hold everything together. As phrases like "They're spaghetti, they possess me/I'm trying to be a thought killer" prove, Yorke has a gift for saying everything and nothing at once, his expressive voice floating through the music and lending meaning to his often unintelligible lyrics.

"Reverse Running" is built on a glitchy electronic rhythm, but it highlights guitar, piano and Yorke's vocals in what ends up as the album's most recognizably Radiohead-ian track. "Ingenue"'s hummable synth hook and cascading clicks dovetail perfectly, prompting an almost-involuntary head sway that, personal experience tells me, is bound to get you some strange looks in the 1902 Room. Lead single "Judge Jury and Executioner" isn't the album's best track, but if the group's fantastic live performances of it in 2010 are any indication, "Amok"should take on a whole new dimension when Yorke and the band goes on tour this spring.

I understand that what I've just described may not sound like what many of you are looking for, but you'll be missing out if you don't give "Amok" a chance. Whether you take the time to explore and dissect its many intricate layers or throw it on as music to zone out or study to, this album has something to offer you. So plug in those headphones, press play and let this behemoth show you what it's made of.