2.5 stars (out of 4)
There’s a skip to Thom Yorke’s step from the get-go on his first album with Atoms for Peace, the side project the Radiohead singer introduced on tour in 2009-10.
Atoms for Peace includes the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea on bass, Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich on programming, Joey Waronker on drums and Mauro Refosco on percussion, and the group served notice of its rhythmic agility when it transformed the songs on Yorke’s brooding 2006 solo album, “The Eraser,” into slithery, occasionally ecstatic dance tunes on the road three years later.
The vibe carried over into Radiohead’s 2011 album, “The King of Limbs,” and its agitated single “Lotus Flower,” with a fedora-clad Yorke busting out some spastic, Charlie Chaplin-does-acid dance moves in the video.
“Amok” (XL Recordings) takes that a step further, a twitchy dance album populated by ghosts flickering in the shadows. The rhythm lines are foregrounded, often three or four at a time, intersecting and squiggling alongside one another like parallel streams. Just what instruments exactly are producing these grooves is never readily apparent; a hi-hat or bass guitar is identifiable here and there, but mostly it’s a matrix of syncopated, squirming sounds that take solid shape, slowly vaporize and then drift off, as in the mesmerizing “Before Your Very Eyes” and “Dropped.”
“Amok” references ‘80s acid-house, dub-step, glitch electronica, Afro-beat and the skewed funk of fusion outfits like Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi Band (particularly the 1973 “Sextant” album) and Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time (the 1982 “Of Human Feelings”). The album was constructed out of jam sessions and then edited into four- and five-minute songs. Instruments were mashed, twisted and inverted in the studio – an approach that echoes how Teo Macero and Miles Davis concocted forward-looking jazz-funk masterpieces such as “In a Silent Way” and “Bitches Brew” 40 years ago.
Heady stuff, for sure, but Flea is conversant with them all, and his bass playing lends not just ballast but elasticity to these arrangements. The rhythms rule, especially with speakers cranked to the maximum, but they never oppress. The percussion doesn’t smash the senses so much as swarm through them.
Yorke’s airy vocals sound disconnected from it all, nonetheless. Rather than joy or any sense of release, he still conveys a haunted sense of dread, particularly on the furtive “Unless,” the choir-crying-from-the-depths title track and the anxiety-ridden “Judge, Jury and Executioner.” Texture and rhythm trump melodies, the tracks blurring together in a procession of snap, crackle and anti-pop.
As technical achievement, “Amok” is an amazing album in many ways. As a collection of songs, it’s as slippery as its rhythms.