Chris Martin once told Newsweek Magazine that he has an unrequited love affair with Thom Yorke, a man who once dismissed Martin’s band Coldplay as lifestyle music. “I’m in love with a lot of things. Some of those things love me back. And some of them don’t — and one of them is Radiohead.”
I am not in a position to say to what extent marrying a movie star, befriending Jay-Z and leading one of the most popular bands in the world can salve the sting of one of your heroes dismissing you, but I am in the position to say that Martin’s clear need to win the respect of Yorke (and to a lesser extent, Jon Pareles) ended up making his band a lot more interesting. You don’t write songs with elliptical titles like “Death And All His Friends” if you don’t have something to prove.
Yorke has never weighed in on Coldplay’s new direction, but he probably understands the impulse. Thom Yorke has his own Thom Yorke. His name is Richard D. James, better known as the pioneering musician Aphex Twin. Yorke has frequently called him his favorite musician on the planet, and recently told Dazed & Confused that “he burns a heavy shadow. Aphex Twin opened up another world that didn’t involve my fucking electric guitar.” But it turns that everybody is somebody’s lifestyle music; James has said of Radiohead: “I heard about five or six songs and considered them really crappy!”
Yorke is not as revealing of an interview subject as Martin, so I don’t know how much the James snub bugs him. Regardless, he’s been a dutiful student of the serene and chaotic tracks that Aphex specialized in. As great as their sophomore album The Bends was, Radiohead truly caught fire when they started blending their anthemic, yearning songwriting with non-rock influences; the undulated, scrambled pulses of “Everything In Its Right Place” and the elegiac swirl of harmonies of “Let Down” were Radiohead showing the world how to incorporate DJ production techniques into guitar-rock without coming off like a nightmare from the Spawn soundtrack. And now with Amok, the debut album from his new project Atoms For Peace, Yorke has made his most pure mash note yet to the defiantly minimalist tracks that James and his peers in Matmos and Autechre perfected back when people still used the term Intelligent Dance Music.
“It’s the type of album that at first provokes feelings of admiration more than love, at least at first.”
Atoms For Peace started when Yorke recruited a backing band consisting of longtime Radiohead producer/multi-instrumentalist Nigel Godrich, Beck drummer Joey Waronker, percussionist Mauro Refosco and (to the surprise of many) Red Hot Chili Pepper bass-slapper Flea play his 2006 solo album The Eraser on tour. Pleased with how it came out, Yorke had the band record three days of jam sessions, which he and Godrich chopped up and tweaked around for two years between Radiohead projects. The result is a series of thick, rubbery grooves and deep-in-the-pocket fills torn apart and sewed together sideways, and then ladled with a series of sine waves and guitars treated to sound like dial-up laptops.
Amok doesn’t really sound like the work of five musicians playing poly-rhythmic syncopations in a room, but there’s a give-and-take, a slow-rolling vibrancy feel here that’s missing from many modern clubland maestros. You can feel the pulsing heart, even if it’s surrounded by a deep chill. (It should also be noted that with the exception of “Stuck Together Pieces,” you wouldn’t be able to tell Flea was on this thing if you didn’t know it going in, which is probably to his credit.) As vocalist and arranger Yorke mostly pulls back, confident that the morse-code beats and arctic bass are all the hooks necessary for this thing to work. None of these songs go for the cleansing awe-climaxed that Radiohead have mastered, and the vocals are blended into the mix like one more wave of uncut sound. It’s the type of album that at first provokes feelings of admiration more than love, at least at first.
But given enough time, details start pop out from the immaculate wash, such as the lightly plucked guitar and looped handclaps of “Judge, Jury And Executioner,” or the two-note Atari purr of “Ingenue.” And then the odd logic of these compositions makes sense, and everything snaps into its right place. Once you’ve spent time with Amok, “Before Your Very Eyes” becomes negative-image copy of Talking Heads’ “Born Under Punches,” and “Reverse Running” endlessly swirls and sighs.
But most of this is not dance music qua dance music. Neither was most of what was regrettably titled IDM. At their best, James and his peers felt like they had found a way to reach their hands directly into your skull and lightly tap on your brain until you were suitably transfixed. Yorke might bring more firepower than his idols did, but the hypnotic bliss he achieves is ultimately as potent. He won’t be, but James should be proud of what he’s inspired.
Amok is out February 26 via XL Recordings.