After the usual years of silence, speculation and cryptic missives from Oxford, we don’t actually have a new Radiohead recording but there’s an album and now a tour from the Radiohead offshoot, The Smile (Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood with Tom Skinner, and production by Nigel Godrich).
The album’s good incidentally. Apparently, there is still some pop and rock band bubbling away inside Yorke and Greenwood.
But, as with the many very good and some great film scores by Greenwood (and some decent and sometimes pretty good solo work from Phil Selway and Ed O’Brien), there’s also been a lot to value in several projects Yorke has taken up in the past decade or so.
To mark the occasion, Wind Back Wednesday excavates one of them, the 2013 album by the not-that-cryptically named Atoms For Peace. Don’t worry, it may have a Chili Pepper but it still feels good.
ATOMS FOR PEACE
Amok (XL/Remote Control)
There was something fascinating in a recent comment from Thom Yorke about what could be his second solo album (after the regularly excellent The Eraser) or the debut album from the group he assembled to make his second solo album and then found was an entity in itself (Flea from the Chili Peppers, Joey Waronker from a lot of great records and Nigel Godrich, producer of most of the Radiohead albums).
Yorke said something along the lines of this rapidly produced album – done in three days – having been the product of getting together, getting wasted and listening to Fela Kuti. This was a lightbulb moment for me, a week or two into the job of getting inside Amok or maybe more accurately letting Amok get inside me. It made sense of something I had been unable to articulate even as I became more and more obsessed with this minimalist piece of art.
Some of the most compelling moments of Kuti, such as for example the title track to the album Zombie, create a wholly separate existence for a listener and then either cocoon you within that world or better yet, makes that world seem all encompassing so that everything else simply becomes background to Kuti’s picture. It begins with a groove that isn’t dependent on bass or drums or percussion individually but seems incapable of being separated into its constituent parts. It then moves relentlessly or even remorselessly to weave a compelling and disorienting web with repetition on that groove.
In a quieter, starker and more electronically enhanced way, that is exactly how Amok works. This isn’t an album for parsing or separating but for taking whole, for letting its sequence of liquid basslines and beats which feel as if they’re played more on the rims than the skins of the drums, roll into one. Angular positions will result as limbs splay and reshape but it’s still more a case of constant changes of positions rather than outright dancing with the low humming energy percolating rather than erupting.
You can take a single track and think yourself ready to kick up a gear but the development remains subtle and over a longer time frame. Take for example Default (woody snaps and vibrating low registers, the skitter beat emerging along with the organ chords) which eases up into Ingenue (a distant woodpecker and Eno-esque synthesiser are in the background but only just behind the shaker-as-high hat) and then steps up more on Dropped (firmer industrial tones and more probing rhythms). You progress but you do it within this tightly framed world.
Speaking of which, this is without question a headphones album, an immersive experience within the mix of electronica and analogue. It’s where you’ll get the most out of Yorke’s voice too, that febrile and yet delicate thing at the centre – but not the forefront, because there is no forefront – of this starkly engaging construction.