atoms-for-peace-amok[xrr rating=4.0/5]When news broke back in 2009 that Thom Yorke was collaborating with virtuoso bassist Flea, what music fan couldn’t at once be tantalized and confounded? An avant-garde Briton and a funky Californian? Yet after nearly five years of gestating, the resulting Atoms for Peace has delivered their first cerebral brainchild, a trance-inducing rock and electronica synergy in which Yorke, Flea and their fellows do their damndest to remove the cynical doubt that looms over supergroups.

AMOK’s nine tracks bear a decided unity. Ambient and austere with synthesizers, loops and artificial beats piled atop one another. Steeped in the Krautrock tradition, the music sounds as dispatches from a future age that, through some fissure in the time stream, comes through a HAM radio. Yorke continues the trajectory he’s exhibited on the last few Radiohead albums of shedding the skin of formal song structure in favor of mood-evoking and sensory-titillating pastiches of sound. He takes a Jackson Pollock approach to music, crafting an aural collage of spattered elements, the components on the canvas more sound effects than instruments. Thus, the record is not immediately rewarding, but requires repeated listens for each texture to be recognized, like threads in a quilt. AMOK demands the listener devote intense attention to properly absorb it until it slyly slips its way under your skin and weaves into your consciousness. Perhaps it is best appreciated as the soundtrack to a meditation session.

As such, in several ways it sounds like the next Radiohead record (longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Goodrich is also a member), with Flea’s presence not as overt as one might expect. Rather, he fits snuggly into the scheme, displaying a level of subtlety and restraint that, ironically, allows him to convey what a truly great ear for musicianship he has. The man simply does not get the credit he deserves as a ridiculously talented musician when playing with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and ideally AMOK will shine some of that recognition his way. That said, Flea’s distinctive manner of slapping the bass is far from absent. On opener “Before Your Very Eyes,” what starts with the sound of teeth or dice rattling in a tin cup and a watery guitar line is joined at the 45-second mark by Flea’s patented thumping bassnotes. Elsewhere, on “Dropped” a pregnant drone launches to a frenetically pulsating bassline, and “Stuck Together Pieces” is built around a low-end melody.

The focal point of the record, the beacon listeners will cling to, is Yorke’s unmistakable falsetto, alternately soaring and whispery. As a vocalist, he has a knack for taking a mundane or clichéd phrase and, by repeating it like a mantra, turning it into an epigram that is skin-crawlingly unnerving. For proof, look no farther than “Stuck Together Pieces,” on which Yorke croons, “You don’t get away/ You don’t get away/ So easily” over and over. Such menace flares up again on title track “Amok” when Yorke, with the seductiveness of a coiled viper, offers, “A penny for your thoughts now” and on “Judge, Jury and Executioner,” where he states the title ad nauseum above a bedrock of handclaps. On the downside, the pitch of his voice can at times turn into grating mewling, obscuring the poetic gravitas his lyrics contain.

The number that probably best represents the album is, not surprisingly, lead single “Default.” Percussion-laden with polyrhythmic syncopation, its robotic start-stop sputtering exhibits the cool detachment running throughout the record. As Yorke’s disembodied voice floats about like a ghost seeking a host to possess, bemoaning how “The will is strong/ But the flesh is weak,” a guitar effect strains from behind, sounding like a spring being pulled taut. Most insidious of the batch is “Unless,” on which Yorke repetitively intones, “Careless/ I couldn’t care less,” presenting his narrator as a disaffected tyrant on his throne, techno beats bubbling up around him, percolating and increasing in volume, intensity and speed. The zenith is reached, though, on the title track, which appropriately wraps the album. Particularly spacey, crackling percussion and distant echoes define the tune as Yorke is at his most spectral.

In the end, Radiohead fans will no doubt adore the record, adhering to the model of being artists uncompromising in their work. Those who came to the project via the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ base might be left bemused, but if they give it a chance, it’ll be hard to walk away without some degree of reward. It’s a slow burn, but one that sears and flares with the fuel you’re willing to invest in it.

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