On AMOK, Thom Yorke's Atoms For Peace Embrace Big, Scary Technology
Recently, science fiction has crept into the news. The FDA just approved the first bionic eye, which will reverse certain types of blindness. At last year's Usenix Security Conference, researchers displayed how the human brain could now essentially be hacked with devices that read brain patterns, identifying when it recognizes sensitive information like PIN numbers. In Scotland, scientists claim to have used 3D printers to create stem cells, aiming to eventually print whole organs. These are the people out on the digital frontier, seeking to make humans better by design.
Such headlines are fitting precursors to the release of AMOK, the debut record from Thom Yorke's new-ish band Atoms for Peace. Originally assembled to back the Radiohead frontman while he toured his solo record The Eraser, the band--comprised of Nigel Godrich (Radiohead's "sixth member" and producer), Flea, Joey Waronker (Beck, REM), and percussionist Mauro Refosco--got along so well they decided to cut their own album. The band jammed intensively for three days, and Yorke and Godrich then cut and edited AMOK into existence from these sessions, compressing the spontaneity of human performance into tightly rhythmic electronic music. As Yorke told Rolling Stone late last year: "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." Sort of not unlike receiving a new organ someone printed for you.
It's a far cry from the Yorke of 2000. The electronic experimentation of Kid A was paradoxical, layering human and mechanical elements as Yorke's lyrics explored an alienation from ourselves in the digital era. But Yorke eventually mellowed, getting interested in DJing and dance music as a whole, not just the cerebral glitch electronica and trip-hop that initially fascinated Radiohead. The band's 2011 album The King of Limbs marked the beginning of the process that has bloomed on AMOK. Radiohead constructed those songs by playing their parts and looping them together, thus achieving its claustrophobic, persistent rhythms. With Atoms for Peace, it seems Yorke and Godrich want to go further: not taking live playing and making it sound electronic, but to take live playing and electronic sounds and smear them together until the boundaries between human and machine on AMOK ceased to exist. Essentially, Yorke and Godrich are chasing after the very developments Kid A was so paranoid about. While they didn't quite obliterate that line, the final product is notable. This is the most consistently warm and dance-able music Yorke has been involved in.
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Take, for instance, the Kid A track "Idioteque." Built around a jaggedly crystalline beat and sampled synth chords from Paul Lansky's 1973 piece "Mild und Leise," it shows how, already, the notion of editing, of blending the human performance and digital reconstruction, were germinating for Radiohead and Godrich. But this wasn't a song about transcending human restrictions; it's bug-eyed and apocalyptic, with Yorke proclaiming "Ice age coming, ice age coming" as he's overtaken by the accumulating beats and synths. as if he was drowning amongst the music, trying to stay afloat on digital currents. Other moments of Radiohead's early electronic phase were equally unsettling, from the spectres of chopped up vocals haunting the edges of "Everything In Its Right Place," perpetually threatening to overcome the main vocal's desperate reiteration of the title, to the willed self-detachment of the filtered vocal on "Kid A" or the apocalyptic visions and sonic clatter of the Hail to the Thief track "The Gloaming."
Contrast this with "Amok," the titular closing track of Atoms for Peace's debut album. AMOK, in typical Yorke fashion, has some doomsday imagery to it: a black and white graphic cover of what seems to be Los Angeles being destroyed by floods and falling asteroids--a mash-up of plagues, perhaps. There is nothing apocalyptic about the track though, which is actually one of the most blissed out moments on a generally unchallenging album, or in Yorke's entire ouevre, really. Yorke's voice is an instrument here, cooing something near-unintelligible repeatedly, fading in from an initial burble of electronics and continuing on alongside the track's polyrhythmic crescendoes. At the end, synths rise up all around him, his voice and backing vocals weaving in and out of the waves. It's not unlike "Idioteque" in structure but entirely different in tone. For a few bars there, the human and the machine seem to be operating totally in unison, bouncing off one another, anxiety-free, to something gorgeous and mildly cathartic. Here, it's uplifting.
Elsewhere, the combination achieves similar harmony. On "Ingenue," otherworldly funk buoys strange synths that manage to sound like organic noises, as if someone mastered rendering rainforest sounds in binary code. Opening track "Before Your Very Eyes..." features a near identical build to "Amok"--unwavering polyrhythms, ethereal vocal layering, gauzy synths--and employs it to similarly euphoric results. Though Yorke and Godrich's take on dance music is devoid of 2012's ubiquitous drop, it does have "Dropped," wherein pulsing, single note electronic lines adhere to visceral human rhythms. Acoustic guitar and a more conventional structure let "Judge, Jury, and Executioner" share the hazy seductiveness previously glimpsed in certain In Rainbows or King of Limbs tracks.
All of this is to say that, this time around, Yorke and Godrich's primary approach has been to deconstruct in order to build. Rather than highlight the contrast of human and machine musically in order to convey alienation thematically, as they did in the past, they craft something reconciled, inviting--achieving an antidote in the editing. The once technophobe Yorke, the one behind "Idioteque," would've feared that humanity would be subsumed into the machine of the digital era. Instead of remaining anxious about what will be human in the 21st century, they've carved out their own little definition. It has bionic eyes and a 3D printer can build it out of loops and samples.
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