This is the second installment of music reviews from the talented mind of AP Kryza. AP is an editor at the Thrillist and has his finger on the pulse of music, culture and life in general.
The term “super-group” has been bandied about considerably since Atoms for Peace’s lineup was initially announced. This is, after all, a supposed musical mind-meld between Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, Beck drummer Joey Waronker, Brazilian percussionist Maruro Refosco and Radiohead producer (and electronic wizard) Nigel Godrich.
But “super-group” could be a bit misleading. Historically, the convergence of legendary musicians has yielded results at once breathtaking and horribly disappointing, usually on the same record. Every attempt — from the Traveling Wilburys (Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, George Harrison, Tom Petty) to Temple of the Dog (members of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden) and the horrifically disappointing Audioslave (a convergence of Soundgarden and Rage Against the Machine) — has surprisingly resulted in a cacophony of uneven output.
But at least there was something in each of those projects that set them apart from the individual artists’ other work. Or, to put it another way, the convergence of influences resulted in uneven yet ambitious songs in which you could taste the individual spices each artist put into the stew.
With Atoms’ debut, Amok, there is no doubt that Yorke is driving the train. Highly experimental and utilizing huge doses of experimental electronic music with an Afrobeat bent, Amok sounds like the greatest collection of high-quality Radiohead b-sides ever assembled. That band’s trademark bleeps, bloops and off-tempo drum loops permeate the entire record, more or less eclipsing elements that would make Atoms pop as a project that could be embraced by fans of any of the individual artists involved.
That’s not to say that Amok is a bad album by any stretch of the imagination. It’s actually rock solid. But it’s also frustrating that each individual that isn’t Yorke has little room to stand out in the trippy mix. There are glimpses to be sure. Flea, a legend bogged down in the increasingly adult-contemporary world of the Chili Peppers hit machine, provides a slappy bassline on the excellently haunting “Judge, Jury and Executioner.” Refosco lets loose throughout, though his auxiliary percussion often gets lost in the background.
Indeed, most everything gets overtaken by the background. Fans of Radiohead’s impressively robust repertoire know that Yorke’s compositions are the electronic equivalent of walking into a dark forest and listening to the sounds of snapping twigs, animal calls and blowing leaves in a glorious symphony of sounds. Amok offers more of the same, with layer upon layer of sound tucked underneath Yorke’s howl, which often sounds like an androgynous ghost calling out into the ether.
The works of Fela Kuti have been singled out as a primary influence on Amok, which makes perfect sense, given the album is comprised of repetitious hooks layered overtop one another and repeated throughout the duration of the song. But that spark — that essential sonic landscape wherein each individual piece goes on repeat until given a chance to shine — is merely teased. On “Before Your Very Eyes,” the record’s opening track — coincidentally also its most exciting and fun — that influence permeates nearly every measure, skewering the group into territory that’s as refreshing as when David Byrne and co. first unleashed Talking Heads’ seminal Remain in Light. But the track also makes a false promise of something utterly different, and the album shifts immediately into the robot art-rock Radiohead’s mastered.
Amok is the best Radiohead album that Radiohead never produced. It’s robust, often exhilarating, psychedelic, rich, challenging and captivating all at once. It’s just a downer that every musician except the guy who is driving the train seemed willing to step out of his comfort zone. Say what you will about the Wilburys. At least it was fascinating to hear Harrison get down on an Orbison track. Perhaps a misguided foray into Freaky Styley country by Yorke — as weird and out of context as it sounds — would have turned Atoms into a supergroup rather than Radiohead with different, familiar faces.