What’s your favorite supergroup? I guess, the real question with that question is, of the supergroups you really like, how many of them are as good as the parts? Broken Social Scene and The New Pornographers are among the most well-known, but the members of both maintain that they aren’t actually supergroups. In my mind, even the best of them have a lot of time overcoming the pitfalls associated with being associated with a bigger band. This is exactly why Atoms for Peace have been given a weary eye by most people: you take Thom Yorke’s voice and guitar, Flea’s bass, Nigel Godrich’s keys, and Joey Waronker’s drumming, and, if you’re think about what it might end up sounding like, you hit on what Amok actually does sound like. But let me assure you first: Amok is a neat little record.
Thom Yorke will never be anything but the frontman of Radiohead, and Flea will never be anything but the bassist for Red Hot Chili Peppers. This is not an insult to them, or their abilities; Thom Yorke has been a driving force in my life, and Flea may be one of the best modern bassists working today. However, that’s a lot of the problem. When I heard that Atoms for Peace was going to be a thing, I immediately wondered how much it would sound like a Radiohead record. The lucky thing for Amok is, it does not sound like a Radiohead record. It does, however, sound a lot like Thom Yorke’s solo album, the criminally underrated The Eraser. And it sounds like that on every single track.
The upside is that Amok serves to mend a few of the problems with The Eraser, in that it was very much clear that Yorke was attempting to go for something decidedly un-Radiohead with the record. The imagery on the album left almost nothing to the imagination, the production was sharp as a tack, and everything felt a bit Bends-era, but done with Nigel Godrich’s saccharine beats. While all of these things made The Eraser a beautiful record to listen to (even if it could definitely do with a re-sequencing), this album serves to make something slightly closer to a Radiohead record, without making something that makes you ask, “why didn’t he just do this back home?” Yorke’s current interests were incredibly evident on The King Of Limbs, an album that largely stripped away the lush guitar work of In Rainbows in favor of drum machines and repetitive tempos, much in the same way that Liars changed their entire makeup to make the stark, beautiful WIXIW last year. This far into Yorke’s career, it’s a comforting thing that he’s restless, because it means that he’s content with just trying out new things and new masks, instead of shutting everything down completely.
But, you may be asking yourself, what does Amok sound like? A fair question: one of the things that truly serves the album well is the fact that Yorke’s voice sounds more like an instrument than ever. His words have stopped being so far in front of everything else, meaning the sound of his voice ceases to be that focus, and becomes something to isolate, rather than pick apart, in the same way that you might stop to analyze the percussion on its own. This is a mark of the talent that Godrich has always has, because after being Radiohead’s unofficial 6th member for almost 20 years, it’s obvious that he knows how to play to the strengths of everyone in the band, and in this band, it serves well for everything to be a blend of everything at once. On most records, this would be a death mark. But here, it’s a comfort, and makes it more rewarding when you do manage to isolate a small section. Repeat listens reward you with the gift of discovery, like when you notice the howling backup vocals that coarse through “Stuck Together Pieces,” or the tribalism that come to the table courtesy of both Joey Waronker and Mauro Refosco, who blend together in a way that feels hard to ignore a lot of the time.
This is a damn good record, and while it doesn’t have the same hit ratio that The Eraser did, this never works as a disadvantage. It works well as an aurally pleasing bit of art that you might stop to examine, from time to time. Over time, certain things spring up as being bits you like more than others, like how the beginning groove of “Before Your Very Eyes…” reminds you of an especially great mid-period (read: the 90s) Chili Peppers track, back when Anthony Kiedis was full of great, persistently groovy ideas. You might also appreciate that “Ingenue” sounds, at least for a minute, like it might erupt into a door-shaking dance track very soon, but it instead keeps along its same path of glockenspiel hammering and Godrich’s semi-funky keyboards toiling away as a portrait of someone trying desperately hard to not be excessive. It’s going to take a decent amount of time to truly sink my teeth into, but after a few listens, it’s clear that, in five year’s time, people will likely talk about giving this album a listen-through, and finding something new and exciting to connect with.
The unfortunate thing is, people will never be able to talk about Amok without talking about the works of Radiohead. You can already hear the internet, full of Radiohead fans, pushing up their collective glasses and readying a 1000-word dissection of how, exactly, this album is weak compared to OK Computer, and how Yorke will never make another Kid A. He is a force larger than life, and though having Flea in your band is no small potatoes, people will undoubtedly relate this album to any given Radiohead song before they even think to compare, say, the bass throb of “Judge Jury and Executioner” to any given Red Hot Chili Peppers song. This, really, is why the idea of the supergroup is inherently flawed: no matter how much you enjoy the touches that different musicians bring to the table from their day jobs, those albums are never quite going to live up to the best records those people made with said bands. But that does not, however, mean that those records aren’t any less enjoyable.
In short: this isn’t Radiohead. This isn’t Red Hot Chili Peppers. This is Atoms for Peace. Listen to them as a completely new band. I think you’ll be surprised what you find.