A few months ago, Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich played a show at the MoMA PS1 across the street from my house. I wasn’t aware of it until later that night when I asked a girl on the subway what everyone had gone to see, and when she told me it was Thom Yorke I immediately wanted to kick my own ass for missing it. And then some time later I heard that he had debuted songs from an upcoming project of his, and I got even more pissed at myself, because holy crap, it had to have been amazing.
While I didn’t get to see the show, a friend of mine from work said that he was able to score tickets, and told me that the actual set fell far below his expectations. He said that the DJ set that Yorke performed wasn’t that great and that his new songs were uninteresting, with the Radiohead frontman mostly “doing his falsetto thing.” I was crushed. That was the first little twinge of doubt I remember feeling toward Yorke’s Radiohead side project, Atoms For Peace and their upcoming record, “AMOK.” It only got worse from there.
In September of 2012, the band (comprised of Yorke and Goodrich as well as Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers, Joey Waronker of R.E.M. and Beck, and percussionist Mauro Refosco) released the song “Default,” and I had my first real taste of their music. Compared to the other stuff I was listening to at about that time, bands like Lorn and Crystal Castles and Grimes, the song seemed pretty uninteresting and uninventive. In January they put out “Judge, Jury and Executioner,” which was a tiny bit more catchy but largely left me with the same feeling of indifference toward the band that I got from “Default.” When the record itself finally came out, I ultimately found listening to it to be a bit of a chore.
The thing is, I like Radiohead a lot, and I like Thom Yorke a lot. Once I really sat down and started listening to Radiohead, they turned into the only band I wanted to hear. For a while it was Radiohead morning, noon and night for me. Their music was just so cool and mature and cinematic and different from what I was used to, and it ran the gamut from dark to uplifting, from epic to minimal, from rock and roll to stuff that was just ultra bizarre. And then I heard Yorke’s solo album, “The Eraser,” and I loved that. It was more electronic and dealt more with loops and it had a colder, more digital tone, but each song had its own flavor and the finished product was a fucking masterpiece as far as I was concerned.
But where “AMOK” goes wrong is that all it is is mood music. It’s still urban, percussive music for walking through a city on a dreary day, but it doesn’t narrate the scene, it just sinks into the background. The songs are quiet and they all bleed into one another to the point where, with the exception of a few clearly enunciated one-liners, you can’t tell one pitter-patter-y drumbeat or high-pitched mumble from the next. Every instrument is trying to be quieter than the next and nothing is trying to stick out of the mix. Sometimes there’s a synth line that’s kinda neat at first, sometimes there seems like there might be actual hierarchy to the song, but for the most part you can listen to this on your headphones on the train ride into work and not even notice when the songs have changed.
I suppose for some people that’s what they want, and I’m not trying to knock that as a valid musical direction. That kind of music certainly has its place. But it’s just not enough for me to stay interested in. I typically like synth-heavy music and moody music and music that is very minimalist, and right now all that stuff is exploding into the forefront of independent music. Unfortunately though, in my opinion, as innovative as the individual players in Atoms For Peace are, I just don’t think their record keeps up with the other things going on in music right now.
For the record, the next time Atoms For Peace is playing a show in my area, it won’t be at the PS1, it’ll be at Barclays Center, an arena that seats over 18,000 people. So what the fuck do I know?