The Anniversary

Amok Turns 10


Here’s a band that features Thom Yorke and Flea. There were a lot of threads that led to Atoms For Peace, but that was one of the big storylines when the band became something real. It was a supergroup of a Radiohead tangent, the seeming result of someone jumbling the code for some ’90s nostalgia fever dream. Two titans from erstwhile polar ends of the alt-rock spectrum — one who made “Everything In Its Right Place,” one who made “Sir Psycho Sexy” — joined together with some co-conspirators to give Yorke’s pervasive end-times anxieties a bit more groove.

Atoms For Peace began as Yorke’s unexpected backing band when he decided to tour his 2006 solo outing The Eraser in 2009, three years late and on the other side of In Rainbows. He hit up unofficial sixth Radiohead member Nigel Godrich, and outlined his vision — his first two picks, Flea and Joey Waronker, signed up immediately, and the group was rounded out with Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco. That tour was exhilarating, fleshing out the characteristically chilly/claustrophobic electronica of The Eraser in a live band format. The group clicked to such an extent that they kept the party going after the tour, getting drunk and listening to Fela Kuti at Flea’s house, kicking off three days of jamming in LA. That was it — that was how the band, as it existed, made an album together. Yorke and Godrich spent two years rearranging, cutting, and adding to the music from those three days, resulting in Amok, which arrived 10 years ago this Saturday.

Amok was, officially, the debut of Atoms For Peace, a new band with Thom Yorke as its frontman. The contributions of Flea, Waronker, and Refosco were supposedly crucial — the way their original performances filtered through Yorke and Godrich’s manipulations created an interplay between the organic and digital. But from their origins as the Eraser tour band, to the fact that the album was really constructed by Yorke and his longtime co-conspirator Godrich, right on down to a stark, apocalyptic black-and-white cover echoing that of The Eraser, Amok could just as easily be seen as Yorke’s second solo album. (At the time, some reviews actually quibbled over this, finding that Amok didn’t deliver on the promise of its personnel in terms of pushing Yorke into new territory.)

In another way, Amok was a successor to Radiohead’s divisive 2011 album The King Of Limbs. There, the band had played their parts live and looped them, leading to the strange artificiality of its more rhythmic tracks. For Amok, Yorke and Godrich’s process seemed to take that all a step further — “conduct” the band as they jammed, then form songs out of that material and add their own finishing touches and new passages to what had been played live a year or two earlier. The intent was to blur where sounds came from: “One of the things we were most excited about was ending up with a record where you weren’t quite sure where the human starts and the machine ends,” Yorke told Rolling Stone in 2013.

The whole thing sounded futuristic, exciting, experimental. But in some ways, even more so than the weirdness of a RHCP x Radiohead crossover event, the long process of creating Amok overshadowed the album itself, or set it up to be… not quite as mind-blowing as its premise suggested. The oft-cited afrobeat influence was noticeable here and there — mostly in opener “Before Your Very Eyes…” — and perhaps Yorke’s desire to make a straight-up dance record was coming closer into view as well. Compared to his main gig’s often bugged-out forays into electronic compositions, Amok was certainly warmer and more muscular — “Ingenue” slithered and squirmed with all manner of sinuous synths and weird raindrops-in-a-cave sounds, “Dropped” surged forward to a gorgeous climax of wordless vocals and throbbing synths, while the closing title track ended the album in a cascade that could almost play like true release or transcendence in the context of Yorke’s work.

But this was still part of a lineage. The name Atoms For Peace came from an Eraser track that in turn referenced a 1953 Dwight Eisenhower speech; Yorke’s visions of a modern-life armageddon still hung over this work. That meant that no matter how much prettier, punchier, or more danceable Amok proposed to be, he and Godrich had still taken the music into that uneasy, skittering space they usually favored. In a sense, it felt like a missed opportunity akin to The King Of Limbs — a sometimes rigid recording that became a mad, polyrhythmic catharsis live. Of course, it’s not uncommon for a concert experience to be the more visceral representation of a different idea on record. But at this juncture it was predictable to hear Yorke in this jagged, fragmented style — any hint of a more liquid flow on Amok still made you wish that unhinged dancer from the “Lotus Flower” or “Ingenue” videos went all the way. Yorke seemed enlivened, like he was having fun, with the prospect of making dance music. But for all that went into it Amok was mostly a collection of very good Yorke solo songs — not so much a bold evolution.

In hindsight, maybe it was only part of the story. A few years later, Radiohead returned with A Moon Shaped Pool and toured it, before seemingly embarking on a long, patient hiatus. In the meantime, Yorke and Jonny Greenwood formed the Smile with jazz drummer Tom Skinner. Their debut, A Light For Attracting Attention, was one of last year’s best albums; they just announced more North American dates and have already talked about a second album. Ten years on, it feels as if the “beginning” Yorke once saw in Atoms For Peace’s debut will in fact become a one-off oddity. In terms of his work outside Radiohead, the Smile feels as if it’s picked up this thread and taken it where it wanted to go.

Rather than see any one arc in Yorke’s various extracurriculars, it’s now possible to see the broader Radiohead canon as a web with little through lines. A Moon Shaped Pool had Greenwood’s orchestral experience in its DNA, while Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes and Anima continue the bleak electronica of turn-of-the-century Radiohead. Contrary to being the birth of another band, Amok now feels like a spiritual sequel to The Eraser doubling as the connective tissue between The King Of Limbs and the Smile. The funkier, jammier, looser side of Yorke — the theoretically fun side of Yorke, still a bit constrained on Amok, and finally letting it all hang out nine years later on A Light For Attracting Attention.

Amok has perhaps gotten lost in the shuffle with all these other Radiohead goings-on, between the stunning A Moon Shaped Pool or fans embracing Anima as one of Yorke’s finest solo outings or the Smile winning everyone over last year. While Amok is still more minor than those albums, it’s more than the time Yorke teamed up with Flea, more than the lesser-recognized Yorke solo outing. At this point it fits neatly in the middle of one strain of Yorke’s songwriting, and revisiting that part of the story is worth more than we might’ve remembered.

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