As hard as it may be to believe, it has been over a decade since Radiohead “went electronic” with Kid A. While that record has its detractors, this was widely regarded as a good move. In that record’s wake, it seemed like the band could literally do anything and it would make sense. While the ensuing string of albums have ranged from lackluster but interesting (King Of Limbs) to excellent (Hail To The Thief), all of them* have essentially explored the ground between their millennial reinvention and their guitar rock roots. When 2011’s King Of Limbs was released it seemed like the IDM influences, updated to match the sounds of 2-step and future garage, were finally beginning to win. That record often felt like a fairly straightforward rock record remixed disdainfully into a series of loops and jangling beats. This same disinterest in traditional rock instrumentation and structure was also apparent on singer Thom Yorke’s solo outing, The Eraser, and the band he formed to play that record’s material, Atoms For Peace. AMOK, the band’s first full-length album carries on the legacy of those albums, further distancing Yorke and his collaborators from music that is easily digested and unlocked.
The easiest take on this record is that Thom Yorke is finally making good on naming his primary project after a Talking Heads song. Like that group’s seminal Remain In Light, the songs on AMOK are built upon a web of percussion and looping grooves that serve as a bed for the rest of the arrangement to roll around on. Most of the tracks don’t ever expand on this, starting with the groove and riding it out till the end, only changing the details around the central loop. Occasionally a guitar will enter only to be warped and repeated until it becomes part of the percussion. The only thing truly pushing the songs into new territory is the shifting bass lines, provided by both synthesizers and Flea (yes, that Flea. I know, it’s weird) who brings an edge of funk to “Stuck Together Pieces”. While some songs, like opener “Before Your Very Eyes” and the dark and spooky “Unless” grow and blossom as they progress, most of the tracks are static, shifting slightly from measure to measure, but never quite going anywhere new.
The easy explanation for AMOK’s lack of forward momentum would be the subdued role that Yorke’s vocals take on the record. Unlike The Eraser, which featured plenty of the clever vocal melodies that Yorke employed with Radiohead, AMOK finds him hiding and twisting his voice in the mix. At times he chops up his performances into small stuttering shards and scatters them into a collage. Elsewhere, like on the title track, his voice booms with so much delay and echo that the words themselves are obscured completely. On top of this, the actual vocal melodies are fairly unobtrusive and understated. Yorke is allowing himself to slip under the waves of clicking machinery and textural programming. It’s a brave move for a singer with a voice with as much personality as his, and occasionally it leads to some interesting sonic moments.
Lackluster, but interesting. I used this phrase to describe King Of Limbs earlier, and as much as I hate to admit it, it fits AMOK as well. It’s an immaculately produced record, and it’s clear that a great deal of work was spent making sure that every sound happened exactly when the group wanted it to. Sadly, all of this craftsmanship doesn’t seem to add up to much. Without the human element, it’s hard to tell exactly what the point of all of this is. The album’s artwork and interactive website would suggest some form of natural disaster wiping away Los Angeles**, but nothing in the music suggests any chaos of calamity. Instead it’s just track after track of meticulously wrought, but largely uneventful sonic experimentation. Thom Yorke isn’t running amok, he’s jogging in place.
*Amnesiac is arguable in this case, as it’s just as abstracted from the “rock band” formula as Kid A, but is also far less deliberately obtuse and standoffish. It was also recorded in the same sessions as Kid A, which further complicates its place in the band’s trajectory.
**The disaster is a mix of a flood and a meteor shower. This would look way cooler if it weren’t for the fact that the flood concept was used on the cover of The Eraser as well. The real difference is the fact that that record actually referenced this image in it’s lyrical content.