Any Radiohead release – and anything involving Thom Yorke (going back to his cameo with Unkle) will be over-analysed, gushing praise and baseless criticism representing the ends of the spectrum, the actual music sitting somewhere in between – and locating where it sits is subjective, naturally. But Radiohead has released three game-changing albums – and a couple of other very good albums. They have, in that sense, done a lot more with their music than most bands. I really don’t think this can be argued against.
The band is remarkable for weathering the storms of criticism and the changing market and market forces in music. This is a band that has stuck it out – creating fierce, proud, interesting, dynamic music. And never resting on their laurels – there are innovative marketing campaigns (or non-campaigns) to go with the records. And they are a band that respects its fan base; if you’re a Radiohead fan you are treated well.
The band members have all stepped out to enjoy other projects, Jonny Greenwood has established himself as a great soundtrack composer. And Thom Yorke is very much the anti-Bono.
Atoms For Peace formed a couple of years ago – and seemed to be something of a folly, Thom Yorke working with Flea? The Joey Waronker and Nigel Godrich connections were not in any way surprising, there’s no cause for concern there. But Flea? Definitely a (potential) concern.
There will be varying attitudes about the validity of this project; about whether this is actually a band – but it feels like an incredible musical unit across this new album, Amok. It is another way for Yorke (and Godrich) to facilitate the muse, to wrestle and then fling a few musical twitches at the wall. And as you hear a mad blend between man and machine, the instruments evolving out from the programming and then swirling back to disappear into loops and blips and bleeps, it is hard to argue that this is not a great band – a new way for Yorke to realise his musical ideas; a way for Godrich to further assist in these (further) explorations.
In Rainbows is now the album for Radiohead to compete with – and that was how The King of Limbs was treated; a poor cousin built from lesser outtakes. Tough crowd. I thought the best bits of the album were as good as anything on In Rainbows or Kid A or Ok Computer and the mistake with Limbs was that it should have actually contained less (one or two songs should have been trimmed) and it could then have been sold/suggested as an EP. Some people wanted one or two more to make a longer record. (This was not the way it should have gone).
As with The Eraser, Yorke creates a tight atmosphere across nine songs and just over 40 minutes – this, for me, is the classic album length, nine songs and less than three quarters of an hour. There are, allegedly, no rules with music. This, for me, is the correct length for an album.
Amok is a journey, beginning with a Fela Kuti-inspired groove-piece that pulls off the Afrobeat feel with a guitar figure as crucial to the groove as any percussion. And the weave of glitch-hop and noir-ish soundscapes that has been Yorke’s go to, ever since he fell for Super_Collider and Aphex Twin as he burrowed away from the myth and legend of Ok Computer, is in there too. This is not Thom Yorke goes Afrobeat; it’s Thom Yorke visits and borrows from Afrobeat. There’s still subversion with Yorke, it’s Damon Albarn who tries to become (at one with) the style.
The first three songs on Amok are as good as the first three songs on any Radiohead album – better than most of the Radiohead opening blasts in fact. And through dark balladry (Ingenue) and more hopeful broken-beat soul songs (Default), Yorke manages to slip further inside the song, his goal since side two of Ok Computer; to have his voice as a texture, a guiding spirit.
There will be doubters, people bored by the relentless falsetto, that’s fine; that’s (possibly) fair enough. But I’ve found Atoms For Peace to be very exciting, very moving, less clinical than Radiohead on record, the groove from within and around the machine more noticeable, more real. There’s a (human) pulse to this.
And just as The Eraser was released right when people were doubting Radiohead’s abilities to innovate; a stock-take almost, an alternative angle to the follow-up, a second go at hinting towards a direction-shift, Amok does the same for anyone still a fan but underwhelmed by King Of Limbs.
I don’t imagine that Atoms For Peace will bring in too many non-Radiohead fans; but it might. I can’t comment. I run dangerously close to hyperbole with Radiohead, I think they’ve played the mainstream/indie-underground straddle brilliantly; they’re the most important/influential British band since The Beatles. And they’ve managed that in a time of far too much hype and far too many tyre-kickers.
And though Greenwood and the others in the band are crucial, or close enough to it – you get the feeling with this release particularly (more so than The Eraser) that it’s Yorke that offers the (real) vision for Radiohead. And even if dystopia is still his bag, mostly, Amok is not as mopey, not as profoundly dark as every post-Bends Radiohead release. It’s not quite the eternal bummer this time around. Particularly in the musical settings; there’s shade rather than anything too dark.
It’s far too early to go calling this a record of genius – and it’s not really all that surprising to hear the sound of this record playing out in accordance with the names on the sleeve, with how you might imagine it ahead of listening; you hear Godrich and Waronker, Yorke and Flea. And apparently it’s cool to like Flea again these days. Well, whether he’s great or not is irrelevant, between this and his other side-project/supergroup with Albarn, I’m just pleased Flea isn’t only in The Red Hot Chili Peppers. They’re an awful band. Atoms For Peace feels like a very good band. An interesting band. And even if they amount to not a lot post-Amok and a handful of shows, they have helped Yorke to realise another great album. You can’t argue about the roll he’s on.
Why did I say that? Of course you can. Loads of people will hear nothing in this record.
I heard a whole world here. A world I really liked – instantly. A world I’m enjoying revisiting. A world I think I love.