Thom Yorke’s new band runs “Amok” with new album

Atoms for Peace’s new album “Amok” earns three out of five stars.

Mack Hayden , Writer

Thom Yorke doesn’t want you to put him in a corner. Not because he’s afraid of being artistically confined, but because his aesthetic resides in creating his own kind of claustrophobia. Each song he’s written is crafted to make the listener feel beautifully trapped, a sonic and solitary confinement allowing for contemplation of the more disturbing, depressing parts of the human condition. And he never wants to do that in the same way. His new side project, Atoms for Peace, has debuted with “Amok” and it’s Yorke at his most boxed in and blippy — a man desperately trying to understand freedom in a world which increasingly looks like a machine on its last bit of battery juice.

Though the band is centered around Yorke’s songwriting, the musicians circling around him here could easily all front projects of their own. They’ve been collaborating since 2009 and share a mutual love of Afrobeat. There’s bass from Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and drums by Joey Waronker who’s played with both R.E.M. and Beck. Nigel Godrich is most famous for his production of Radiohead’s albums and here provides keyboards and synthesizers. It’s a diverse and somewhat unexpected crew, but most of them could lay claim to the title “architect of alternative ‘90s music” without anyone to dispute their credibility. The Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco rounds out the lineup.

Setting aside individuality for holistic sound

Given such a powerful set of musicians, it’s startling to see how open all of them, including Yorke, were to understating their individuality in service of a more holistic, subtle sound. There are moments when each member gets to shine, but they do so dimly, as candles not torches. It’s also refreshing to see a storied group truly collaborating. No member is attention-grabbing for audio domination. Thom Yorke’s influence looms the largest but it’s not like his work with his primary band, Radiohead, or even his stellar solo record, “The Eraser.” They each bring something to the table, but it’s a democratic effort.

Reader beware: This is not a Radiohead CD. For that matter, most Radiohead CDs have shied away from being the kind of records the general public came to expect from the band after hearing ‘90s classics like “Fake Plastic Trees” and “Paranoid Android.” It’s not just their breakout single “Creep” Yorke has avoided like the plague. He provided an intelligent backbone to ‘90s alternative rock with “The Bends” and penned the most philosophically adept and musically progressive album since “Dark Side of the Moon” in “OK Computer.” But he’s far from being attached to the sounds of these records now. “Kid A” hints at what direction he was most interested in heading down. And its electronic blips and machine-made melodies are deepened and investigated further here on “Amok.”

Yorke's voice shines through

The computerized and mechanical backdrop spotlights the true star of this record: Yorke’s voice. It’s long been the secret to his songwriting success, pairing the dismal or dehumanizing with a high-pitched, achingly human falsetto. There’s strength in fragility, his levitating warble incapable of being crushed against the machinery of his music or the tragedy of his lyrics.

Unfortunately, for all the side project’s strengths, it just doesn’t stand up to his previous solo record and certainly not his work with Radiohead. It’s not a bad album by any stretch of the imagination but it’s plagued by the same problem as Radiohead’s last release, “The King of Limbs.” Compared to what has come before, it’s a little too reliant upon minimalist technobeats for its own good. The creativity present on past releases seems to be compromised by overindulgence. It’s bound to grow on you with repeated listens, but it never quite takes like the others.

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