As Paralyzing As It Is Lively
It seemed like the last we’d be hearing from Thom Yorke (at least for some time) would be his contributions to Modeselektor’s 2011 album, Monkeytown. Then, in typical Radiohead fashion, a track emerged out of nowhere from the long-discussed Atoms for Peace project. Suddenly, they were no longer just a random touring act, as “Default” dropped as a single in late 2012 with plans of an early 2013 album release. Enter Amok, comprised of some colorful musicians from some of the world’s biggest acts. The Atoms’ debut features the talents of Thom Yorke (of course), Radiohead producer and longtime collaborator Nigel Godrich (also of course), Latin percussionist Mauro Refosco, studio musician Joey Waronker, and Michael “Flea” Balzary on bass. Though, with all these voices in the mix, the duo of Yorke and Godrich seem to reign supreme. But don’t think of Amok as “The Eraser Part II,” or “The King of B-Sides” just yet.
“Before Your Very Eyes” opens the album with harrowing, cacophonous percussion, choppy git-scratching, third bridge tremolo plinking, some angular PiL-esque bass mumbling and Yorke’s waking-from-the-dentist-seat drawl. It presents a set of emotions further explored throughout the album—anxiety, claustrophobia and other Yorke-ian standbys. It’s a stagnant, pulsing number that plods along, beating you about the head with repetition, but not redundancy. This, however, runs common with most of the tracks in Amok, so you better have your IDM hat on. Album single “Default” bleeps and bloops its way through cavernous vocals that feature some of the most tortured lyrics Yorke has written since Hail To The Thief — “Guess that’s it / I’ve made my bed / And I’m lying in it / It’s eating me up.” This isn’t the album you turn on for your morning drive. “Ingenue” feels equally hopeless, adding to the album’s already growing hysteria. At around this point, you best take a deep breath: The rabbit hole only gets more and more narrow.
“Dropped” relieves some tension with sparse drum ‘n’ bass beats over spirited Flea rumbles, but before you know it, “Unless” brings you back to the same sense of IDM sorrow you’ve accustomed yourself to from the first half of the album. By this time, you’ve been subjected to 35 minutes of melancholy, and, sorry for the spoiler, it doesn’t change too much from there. The album is consistent in that it doesn’t have highs and lows, but rather track after track of disorienting, overtly repetitious pulsating. It’s a disheartening work that gives little rest for the listener and only continues to get more and more doleful. Some of the most emotionally revealing ideas come from one of the album’s final tracks, “Reverse Running.” Bass lines feel like they’re on a treadmill moving backwards and vocals spin through a garbage disposal. Misguided guitar noodles and plodding piano have almost more rhythmic backbone than the skittering, random stepped drums while Yorke’s nervous breakdown howls make for one of the more memorable, compelling tunes of the lot.
Though it doesn’t end with a bang, nor start with one, the Atoms crew provide a release that is admirably static. Amok is truly one of those masochistic albums that’s both hard to finish but equally rewarding after each listen. Also coming into play is some of the most interesting production to come along in a while. It’s difficult to keep up with at some points, but the sheer density and hallowness—that sonic and emotional dichotomy—is what makes Amok already one of the year’s most interesting listens. Sure, you can’t pinpoint what makes this an album from a band, nor can you tell who contributed what or care that this album is predominantly Yorke and Godrich at work again. But ignoring all similarities to previous Yorke ventures, Amok proves itself a polarizing, frenzied work that is as paralyzing as it is lively.