The fervour that surrounded In Rainbows and its anarchic pay-what-you-want online release obscured and continues to obscure the fact that, despite its brilliance, Radiohead’s seventh album is perhaps their most conventional of the new millennium. ‘Nude’ is famously a B-side from the OK Computer era, and the album largely ignores the electronic left-turn taken by the band on Kid A and Amnesiac – as well as on 2003’s Hail to the Thief to a lesser degree. Amok, the debut album from Atoms For Peace, an ostensible supergroup comprised of Radiohead singer Thom Yorke, longtime producer Nigel Godrich, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea and journeymen percussionists Mauro Refosco and Joey Waronker, is a fascinating revisionist history, plotting the course Radiohead could have taken in the four years between Hail to the Thief and their redefining masterpiece.
‘Default’ sashays and grinds along as Yorke contemplates his failings (“The will is strong, but the flesh is weak / I’ve made my bed; I’ll lie in it”), while the jittery ‘Dropped’ presents a unified front of manic instrumentation, with Yorke’s voice and Flea’s bass mimicking one another as the background percussion is consumed by schizophrenia. Both tracks resemble different parts of ‘Sit Down. Stand Up.’ while ‘Reverse Running’ has a hint of ‘The Gloaming.’ about it. It is an album indebted to Hail to the Thief and such references and motifs are hidden in plain sight. ‘Ingenue’ is probably the most obvious re-appropriation, though it does plenty to distinguish itself from its forebearer. Cut from the same cloth as ‘Myxamatosis.’ but stripped of its roaring synth riff, it takes a skeletal form over which the weeps of a deflated elephant and the echoes of dripping taps are draped – not literally, of course, though it is the song that pushes Amok‘s obsession with tone and texture to the fore.
The record is far more interested in taming sonic eccentricity than in anthemic payoff. This is not to say that it is too obtuse to really love, however – quite the opposite, in fact. Amok is the sound of Yorke and Godrich exploring the rabbit hole they burrowed on Thief and Yorke’s lone solo effort, The Eraser, but also a lesson in how to force catharsis from a body of dense experimentation.
Flea is a surprisingly restrained presence on the record, but he can carry the load when needed. As Yorke whispers over a Burial-esque beat on the sublime title track, it is his bass that signals the song’s ascent to a higher plane. He holds focus, giving the rest of the band time to build around his nimble fretwork, and the result is stunning.
Amok and Atoms For Peace find their power in repetition. Disparate musical elements combine, accumulate and intensify to create something powerful and emotionally resonant. It may be indirect and slightly self-derivative, but Yorke and co. have proven that Radiohead’s bold new past is just as exciting as their future.