Splitting the Atom

Amok – Atoms for Peace

It’s often intriguing to hear what kind of music is made by the leader of a distinctive, iconic band, when he or she is working in a different context. Two years after what seems increasingly likely to be the final Radiohead album, The King of Limbs, Thom Yorke has released a new record with a new band. The group is based on the partnership of Yorke with Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, and they’re called Atoms for Peace. But don’t be fooled – despite the name on the cover, this record is not really the work of a new band. Instead, it’s the de facto follow-up to Yorke’s own solo debut, 2006’s The Eraser. None of the other musicians in this collective has made his mark on the album; Amok, as it’s called, is Thom Yorke through and through.

Now, Radiohead fans who were scandalised at the thought of Yorke working with Flea will probably be relieved to hear this. In fact, however, the problem with Amok is not the presence of Flea. It’s the absence of Ed O’Brien, Philip Selway, and Colin and Jonny Greenwood – that is, the rest of Radiohead. Listening to Amok is like listening to Morrissey’s solo work after the break-up of the Smiths: it may be good music in its own right, but mostly one is struck by its narrowness and insularity compared with what came before.

Yorke’s style is essentially a densely layered form of electronica, based on intricate arrays of tape loops. It’s much less about melody than about shifting, rippling patterns of sound, and the rhythms that are woven through them. The Radiohead frontman’s fascination with this aesthetic was evident on In Rainbows and dominant on The King of Limbs, which is largely why the latter met with such a lukewarm reception from many of the band’s admirers. But on The King of Limbs, Yorke’s percussive patterns sounded warm and elegant because they were augmented by the contributions of Jonny Greenwood and company. They made the record sound human. Now that Yorke has been given free reign, his creations feel more like academic exercises than full-blooded pieces of music.

There is one very good song here: it’s called “Ingénue,” and it’s a haunting, pulsing shuffle that demands to be heard again and again. The rest of the album varies between the mildly compelling and the frankly uninspired. Yorke’s vocals, drifting listlessly between the clicking and skittering beats, are often the only element in the mix that sounds human. For the first time in his career, the paranoia and hostility that characterise his lyrics come across as irritating, irrelevant and self-absorbed. There’s an unshakeable sense of navel-gazing about the whole experiment.

Producer Nigel Godrich, who has worked on every Radiohead album since The Bends, has stuck around for this one. His is the only recognisable presence on the album besides Thom Yorke’s; but he appears to have done nothing except cater to Yorke’s every instinct, bringing little of his own imagination to the project. Together, he and Yorke have constructed a set of technically accomplished songs that feel strangely inert. All in all, it’s a forgettable footnote to Thom Yorke’s achievements, the heart of which continues to lie in Radiohead itself.