Lots of records are tainted by compromise, but very few have that term attached to them by the people who worked on them. However, in a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine, longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich had exactly that to say about the debut album by Thom Yorke’s “other band.” It might, of course, have been awkward, were it not for the fact that: (a) Godrich is also in that band; and (b) Yorke was in the room when Godrich said it. “This is the eternal battle with Thom,” he explained, much to Yorke’s apparent amusement. “He’s like ‘I really want to make a dance record. But I have to sing on it, or nobody’s going to fucking care. ‘ This is his compromise.”
Hooray for compromise. And even if Yorke’s contention that “there’s no such thing… as a good tune with no vocals” suggests he’s never heard Axel F or the theme tune to Van Der Valk, it’s good that he believes it to be so. That much became apparent as early as last September when the first fruits of Yorke’s moonlighting collaboration with Flea, Joey Waronker, Mauro Refosco and Godrich emerged. The song in question was Default, a soft, sinewy collision of sustained bass notes and pattering dubstep beats intermittently quelled by one of those febrile hooks that, in a post-Kid A world, have acted as something of a Thom Yorke calling card. As a preview of what to expect on Amok, it’s not inaccurate. In line with a project that grew out of the live band that Yorke assembled to play songs from his 2006 solo album The Eraser, trace elements of that album’s cold-war synthscapes and slurring digital oscillations can be found, most notably on Dropped and Judge Jury And Executioner.
But if this can no longer be called a solo project, what’s the band up to? Alight on a spooked symphony of panic buttons called Unless and, actually, it’s no clearer than it was during the sessions for Kid A – sessions that Colin Greenwood memorably described as “two years of intense manual reading.” In fact, there’s little by way of conventional drumming on much of Amok. And even Flea is a muted presence compared to his slaptastic work with Red Hot Chili Peppers. That’ll be no doubt down to the role as “conductors” that Yorke and Godrich assigned to themselves – a role that yields quietly spectacular results throughout the record. On the sonic establishing shot of Before Our Very Eyes, we’re presented with a simple descending guitar motif, a rhythm of syncopated clicks that slowly vanish behind an electronic mist and lyrics siphoned from the precise moment when consciousness succumbs to the molten logic of dreams.
Sounding more like an actual band in a room than at any other point on the album, Reverse Running sees Yorke’s illustrious sidemen gently embellish his vocal with a restive half-funk that wouldn’t sound too out of place on a D’Angelo album. Perhaps more than any other song though, it’s Ingenue that you’ll return to again and again: a dripping tap in lieu of percussion, a synth and bassline that writhe and move around each other like two figure skaters. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? And yet, from such a slender premise, a familiar spell takes hold. Yorke sings and you’re face-to-face with that false sense of deja vu that happens when you hear great pop for the first time.
All of which brings us squarely back to where we started – Yorke and his unique ownership of an instrument for which his beloved Flying Lotus, Autechre and Four Tet would surely pawn all their hardware. If he wants to be disingenuous, he can call it a compromise. To an impartial observer though, it sounds like the best of both worlds. And it buys Atoms For Peace the goodwill to be as experimental as they like.