The dreaded s-word, supergroup, has surrounded Atoms For Peace in shuddersome whispers since their formation in 2009. But when you’re leading the most critically-worshiped rock band of the 21st century, as Thom Yorke is, any career transition could be seen as a step down, if not a lateral move. Yorke’s last non-Radiohead venture was 2006’s underwhelming solo project The Eraser, but the critics remain undaunted. No shortage of hype has followed Atoms For Peace throughout 2012 as a few singles trickled down the pipe, until the group released their first album AMOK late last month. It’s been half a decade since The Eraser, so what can we expect now?
Atoms For Peace — the name being an Eisenhower riff that also seems to be a wry poke at “We Are the World” style charity-supergroups — consists of most of Radiohead (ginger bleatsmith Thom Yorke and button-pusher Nigel Goodrich), Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, R.E.M. drummer Joey Waronker, and Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco.
Some heavy hitters there. I’m not precisely sure what the drummer from R.E.M. can offer Radiohead, but okay, this could be interes… wait… Flea?
“Seriously?” I hear you asking. “The guy who plays Seinfeldian slap-bass in the goofiest California-themed cartoon band that doesn’t also have ‘Raisins’ in the name?” Yes, that Flea. He doesn’t seem to fit, but hold up. Quick history lesson: There was once a time, before most of us were born, that Red Hot Chili Peppers were actually interesting. They were once a boisterous blend of funk, rock and New Wave bubbling up from the L.A underground — a kind of caveman Clash with art-rock aspirations. They had ideas.
We cannot truly know the mind of Flea — if we did, we might know why he chooses to look increasingly like David Letterman’s meth-head little brother — so we can only wonder whether or not years of Californicating destroyed his early experimental ambitions.
Unfortunately, AMOK isn’t the album to answer that question. Not only does Flea not slap, but he’s barely there at all, often reduced to a subliminal thrum beneath the other sonic layers. The same goes for the other players; when you can hear them at all, they’ve been reduced to restrained samples, textural fragments, Frankensteined together in the sonic labs of producer Nigel Godrich.
With the Radiohead mainstay and the second most British-named man alive* at the helm, it goes without saying that AMOK is impeccably produced. Actually, it’s all production. The synthy whispers and clicks, the ghostly ambience, the crystalline vocals high in the mix, the creamy feedback washes that sound like wires slowly fraying in Godrich’s Macbooks. Anyone who’s listened to Radiohead in the last decade knows what to expect by now.
(*First prize goes to Benedict Cumberbatch)
Despite the usual press-kit blather that emphasizes equal contribution from every member of the Supergroup™, Godrich is the star of the show. Yorke pulls up a close second, confidently crooning his elliptical lyrics with precision and soul. Unfortunately, everyone else pulls up a distant third. Session players, man.
I’ll never know why this album is titled AMOK, because nobody’s running amok here. Newer-school Radiohead fans, accustomed to their digital meanderings, will find something to enjoy, though those of us hoping for something new and energetic will leave disappointed. AMOK is a more shapely, tuneful collection than the last few Yorke ventures — Flea’s hypnotic pulses and the clickity-clack of Refosco’s world-beat percussion keep the songs songs, rather than soundscapes — but like most supergroup albums, it’s less than the sum of its parts.
We can only wonder what might’ve emerged if only these collaborators had been allowed to cut loose. Having worked with Eno and Byrne on 2009’s superior ‘supergroup’ effort Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, Refosco probably knows, but he’s not telling.
Best Track: Latest single “Ingenue”, an ethereal slice of snaky synth leads and dripping cave ambience. There’s a creepy vibe to this one, so I’m going to assume that the titular ingenue is one of those Gollum-y cave creatures from The Descent, whose lineage includes Yorke himself. Enjoy.