Radiohead have never made much sense to me as a rock band. This may sound strange, given the decade and a half they’ve spent in that critically untouchable Bardo realm reserved for guitar-weilding titans, just above the orbit of the music industry. Their late-career records have been just as faithful barometers of the zeitgeist as their early ones (even challenging conventional modes of distribution and marketing with 2007’s In Rainbows), yet, the deeper singer Thom York probes themes of digitized alienation, dystopic globalism and cyborgian paranoia, the less relevant it feels for these ideas to be housed in the structure of a rock band, a medium that has historically represented strength, solidarity and optimism in spite of the stifling status quo. York’s solo debut, 2006’s The Eraser, finally felt like a proper articulation of his vision (and remains the project I return to far more often than any Radiohead record), doubling and tripling his vocals to create an echo chamber of human futility, couched in brittle electronic beats that seemed to encourage Logan’s Run escape as much as dancing.
York has performed solo/DJ sets over the years, but when he toured the material from The Eraser in 2009-2010, he, somewhat antithetically, enlisted the help of other warm-blooded humans. The band, Atoms for Peace, includes longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich on guitars and keyboards, Beck drummer Joey Waronker, Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco and, almost comically, bassist Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The band gets billed as a supergroup but, despite years of speculation following their brief touring, no one could really guess what their first record as a band might sound like.
York has said that, with Amok, he essentially adapted electronic compositions for the band but wanted to make sure that you “weren’t quite sure where the human starts and the machine ends.” This tension laregly plays out in the drums, where a track like lead single “Default” relies on glitchy pops and stutters that might be purely synthesized or just a highly processed live kit. With “Ingenue,” a secondary clave rhythm simulates dripping water in an almost subliminal outskirt of the mix. It’s all mechanical enough though that you can never quite parse who’s controlling what, which might also be said of the guitar and synthesizer textures, gorgeous but utilitarian in their construction. York’s voice floats on top in his customary fashion, preferring the mournful falsetto over the nasel lament, and remaining largely unintelligible lyrically. The only other element that approaches this degree of recognition and prominence is Flea’s bass. When it appears (and just as many tracks opt instead for synthesized basslines), it’s a curiously human touch, the sound of fingers on strings conjuring an almost bucolic sense of nostalgia amid all those ones and zeros. “Before Your Eyes” is a lithe Afrobeat groove, mobilized in the way The Eraser felt forlorn. And Flea’s minimalist lines (which have felt so lazy and safe since the Chili Peppers’ departure from thrash-funk) are the glue that sticks “Stuck Together Pieces.”
If Radiohead doesn’t make sense as a rock band, Atoms for Peace make even less sense. And that’s partly why Amok feels so exciting. York has long been the prophet singing into the surveillance camera, attempting to thaw a few hearts through the closed-circuit network. Atoms for Peace feels like the signal feeding back on itself, creating a momentary diversion for everyone else plugged into the system.