Wednesday, July 24, 2013

album review: 'amok' by atoms for peace (RETRO REVIEW)

As a music critic, you always end up missing albums.

Yeah, even the guys who listen to a new album every single day are going to miss a few that are outside of their preferred genre or were dismissed out of hand as being crap. Now if you're familiar with any of my reviews, I like to give everything a reasonably fair shake, but as someone with a full-time job and an active social life, I still don't have time to get through everything.

And that means, like most music critics in the middle of the summer, I took a bit of time in this brief lull to start locating the albums in my backlog that I should cover before the end of the year. Sure, I'm not going to find everything, but it can't hurt to go through the seven or eight albums with positive critical press I inevitably missed (either coming out before I started my reviews, or were put aside in favour of albums I actually had an interest in or wanted to rant about).  

And completely unsurprisingly, most of these albums that I'll be talking about over the next while (with the exception of the new releases, obviously) are going to be the critically acclaimed material that Pitchfork and the majority of the entertainment press have slobbered all over. And those of you who have been following my work know that I tend to be significantly tougher on indie rock than most - something I also won't apologize for in any way. If these are going to be the acts that might dictate the paradigm in independent music, you bet I'm going to be scrutinizing them with a critical eye. After all, if you want to be on the cutting edge, you have to earn it.

So with that in mind, let's talk about the debut album of Atoms For Peace, a collaboration act featuring Thom Yorke of Radiohead, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, Joey Waronker (who worked with Beck and R.E.M.) and longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich. From that line-up alone, one can have high expectations - that's the sort of superstar tag team you'd expect to be introduced by its own theme music! And while I'm most definitely not the biggest Radiohead fan (a conversation for later), it's hard not to look at the rest of this act with a fair amount of awe and wonder.

But then the part of my brain that leaps up whenever I get excited about new prospects made sure to say, 'Now hang on a minute, you remember what happened with Angels and Airwaves, and even though Audioslave was a relative success, it was nowhere near close to the sum of its parts.' And really, outside of Ayreon (which owes its success to the excellent coordination of Arjen Lucassen, and even he doesn't always get it right), there really hasn't been a collaboration effort that I can think of immediately that hasn't been either overshadowed by one member or significantly less than its potential. And given some of my distaste for Thom Yorke, I wasn't entirely sure I was going to enjoy the album, with the very un-Radiohead-esque name Amok. Did that opinion last?

Youtube review after the jump

Unfortunately, it did. And while I wouldn't precisely say that Amok is a bad album, it's certainly a lot less than the sum of its parts and encapsulates many of the reasons why I've never been the biggest fan of Thom Yorke, who brings the worst of his tendencies to this album. 

I should explain. As I've mentioned in the past, Radiohead has always been a band I've liked but never quite loved. Don't get me wrong, the band has a unique sound driven by constant innovation, their instrumentation is damn near flawless, and occasionally they've written very literate, very intelligent songs. But yet now matter how hard I try, I just don't like Thom Yorke's voice. Sure, he has a very pretty falsetto and it often matches the tone of Radiohead's material, but there's an element in his delivery that just feels nasal and a bit too whiny for my tastes. And this definitely becomes a problem when he chooses to sing self-obsessed material where said qualities can become insufferable very quickly. On top of that, Yorke's lack of enunciation definitely gets on my nerves, and too often I find myself wondering whether or not his slurred delivery is just intended to make the lyrics incomprehensible so we don't spot the flaws in the songwriting. 

But those are technical complaints - my bigger issue is that as Radiohead's music has become more and more electronic, Yorke's voice often becomes the 'link' to humanity, the element we're expected to connect with in comparison to the carefully 'constructed' songs - and often, I'm stuck wondering whether Yorke is trying to divorce himself from humanity and thus excuse some of the petulance in his material, or whether he's trying to get us to empathize through the solitary human connection. And really, most of the time I don't buy into either one and thus always feel there's a certain emotional distance I have from Radiohead's material. On that subject, that's also why I tend to stick with the belief that their earlier albums are significantly stronger than their more electronica-driven work, because the more organic instrumentation doesn't work at cross-purposes to Yorke's delivery, but instead supplements it.

And going into Amok knowing the musicians that Yorke had recruited, I was looking forward to a return to that more organic, looser sound - and I didn't get it. This album doesn't sound so much played as constructed, with drum machines and tight, formulaic rhythms, with any hint of organic instrumentation buried behind production and looping. If anything, it feels like a Thom Yorke solo album and if I'm being explicitly honest, I'm a little upset with that fact. It feels damn near criminal to squander talent like this in making something that sounds like it could have been done entirely on a computer. Now I'm not going to deny that there is an intricacy in the construction of the album that I can appreciate, but without that human element - a human element I reckon veteran producer Nigel Godrich could have incorporated well - I can't help but feel all the more distant from it.

And remember how I mentioned above how Yorke has attempted to be that human connection on Radiohead's more 'electronic' albums, and how I never was much of a fan of it? Well, that feeling is only amplified here, both in Yorke's muddled delivery and the lyrical content. I understand that vocals have never been the most important part of a Thom Yorke musical project, but I can't help but feel there is something seriously wrong if I have to have a print-out of the lyrics sitting in front of me while I listen to the album to understand them. Not to catch words I might have missed, just basic understanding. Yorke's falsetto is very pretty, I get that, but if I can't understand what he is singing, how on earth can I build an emotional attachment to it? This isn't like with The Flaming Lips who were explicitly trying to alienate on The Terror, or like with Kanye who used autotune to emphasize his isolation from humanity - here, it just seems shoddy, and while it fits the musical aesthetic, it doesn't add to it in the slightest.

So what about those lyrics? Surely they contain some great poetry or interesting concepts or provide enough justification for why Thom Yorke is wasting talent like this, don't they? Well, after reading through all of the lyrics and relistening through all the songs, I did discover something of a common theme: troubled or broken relationships.

No, seriously, that's it. Atoms For Peace's Amok is just another break-up album, and frankly, it's not a very good one. I'll give them some points for occasional bits of nuance and variety in the framing of said relationships, but I immediately have to take those points away for some truly self-obsessed lyrics. There's very little grief or emotion to suggest that Yorke cared for any of the relationships that failed - in fact, the tone of his delivery and of the lyrics makes it come across like he believes he's the innocent one and that he's not at fault and that she'll be the one to suffer the ugly consequences of breaking up with him. It's almost no surprise the delivery is intentionally difficult to understand or the instrumentation is so rigidly mechanical - they seem like defense mechanisms designed to obscure just how arrogant and self-absorbed Yorke really is.

Now let me be fair here: there's nothing wrong with showing this kind of portrayal of an artist - I can think of plenty of acts who cast their main singer as the 'villain' or as the asshole in his story. But the problem with Amok isn't the content, but how it is framed. Instead of seeing someone who is aware of his flaws or might be aware he's part of the problem, there is a distressing amount of myopic delusion here, where Yorke seems completely unaware he comes across as a self-righteous jerk who always plays the victim.  Compare it to Gotye's 'Somebody That I Used To Know', a song that starts by doing many of the same things Atoms For Peace does, but then undercuts that insufferable feeling by having Kimbra come in and give Gotye a well-deserved kick in the balls, thus showing some actual nuance.

Amok doesn't have this, not to any effective degree. There isn't that moment of nuance - hell, there isn't even much of a crescendo to any revelatory turns! This isn't a slow burn like Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' Push The Sky Away, it's a static clump that never evolves or builds to much of anything. A very well-produced, very intricately constructed static clump, but nothing that raises a response from me ot, her than distaste. And frankly, considering the talent that was brought in, it's disappointing.

So in short, I guess I could only recommend Amok by Atoms For Peace if you're a seriously hardcore Radiohead fan, and a Thom Yorke fan in particular. As I mentioned, I can definitely see why the intricate electronic construction appeals to some, but without a human element that shows nuance or any attempt to connect with the rest of the world, I find myself very distant from these songs. 

And in comparison to Daft Punk, who are a distinctly electronic band and yet manage to make very human and emotionally evocative albums, Atoms for Peace just falls flat.

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