Yorke and company run wild on ‘Amok’

Jordan Beck

A quote from Radiohead/Atoms for Peace frontman Thom Yorke, describing the latter group’s debut album, “Amok,” to “Rolling Stone” was simply, “[…] There are still songs here.”

It’s an unassuming comment on first glance, but, upon closer inspection, it says volumes about how much of a trailblazer Yorke has become over the years.

After all, how often does the lead singer of a band that regularly sells out arenas have to reassure the press that their new record contains such things as hooks and melodies?

And he’s not lying — “Amok” really does have some catchy moments. They just aren’t easy to notice at first. Like almost everything Yorke’s done since “Kid A” was released back in 2000, repeated and focused listens are key to truly understanding what’s going on here. But once you put in the time and give “Amok” a few spins, something truly remarkable starts to emerge — a taut, nine-song labyrinth of an album, equally influenced by alternative rock, funk and electronica.

It’s an easy labyrinth to get lost in, though, and lead single “Default” might actually be the least accessible song on the record. While the rest of “Amok” is jam-packed with rhythms, “Default” is sparse and simple, built out of Yorke’s falsetto, twitchy drum machines and what almost sounds like a broken calliope organ. It’s a great song, to be sure, but don’t expect to hear it on Top 40 radio anytime soon.

Second single “Judge Jury and Executioner” probably won’t crack the charts either, but it makes far more sense to the untrained ear. For starters, there’s a satisfyingly big hook here, in the form of a three-note bassline that sounds suspiciously like humming played back on a sampler. The rest of the song is no slouch, either — it sounds a lot like “In Rainbows” with a heavier emphasis on groove, which is in no way a bad thing.

That newfound focus on bass isn’t entirely Yorke’s doing. In fact, Atoms for Peace could be considered a supergroup. Along with Yorke, the project features the contributions of long-time Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea. The term “supergroup” almost sounds inaccurate when applied to this band.

Unlike so many groups described as “supergroups,” the creation of Atoms for Peace is clearly not the result of inflated egos looking to expand their own legends. In fact, there are moments where “Amok” feels almost like it could be a Thom Yorke solo album — which makes sense, since the band recording it was initially formed to be the backing band for Yorke’s solo gigs.

Those moments don’t last long, however. While Yorke is unquestionably the main creative force behind “Amok,” it’s almost impossible to imagine the album sounding like it does without Flea’s influence. From opening track “Before Your Very Eyes…” on, there’s a genuine sense of warmth to “Amok” that’s far from common in Radiohead’s discography. Tracks like “Stuck Together Pieces” and “Reverse Running” wouldn’t have felt out of place on “Rocket Juice & the Moon,” Flea’s underrated, Afrofunk-tinged collaboration with Gorillaz/Blur mastermind Damon Albarn.

So, with all this in mind, what’s the best way to approach “Amok?” It’s simple: Don’t expect the next Radiohead album, because this isn’t that.

And don’t give up after listening to it once, because this is the kind of record that takes time to “get.”

Instead, take it for what it is: an unusual side project that happens to favor musical depth over immediacy. There are still songs here. They just might not be the ones you were expecting.