When Radiohead first emerged in the early 1990s, the British group presented itself as an interesting blend of alt-rock and post-grunge. A cool band, based on its debut, “Pablo Honey,” but not a particularly earth-shattering or genre-busting one.
That changed pretty quickly. By the time Radiohead released its second album, “The Bends,” things were getting pretty prog-ish, even if the arrangements were not particularly revolutionary. The songs were often devastating in their emotional resonance. It was “OK Computer,” the band’s third effort, that revealed Radiohead to be what we now understand it to be – its generation’s most progressive, envelope-pushing rock band.
Of course, having scaled the heights of “OK Computer,” Radiohead – Thom Yorke, brothers Colin and Jonny Greenwood, Ed O’Brien and Phil Selway – set about dismantling conventional song structures, obfuscating every familiar signpost pointing the way back toward the past, and releasing a series of albums meant to challenge band members and fans alike. Nothing resembling what we’d come to understand as “pop music” remained by the time of “OK Computer’s” successor, “Kid A.” The band became an open vessel, the varied influences of the musicians filling it with a sound that has continued to evolve over the past 15 years. Incredibly, Radiohead has remained a serious commercial force, despite the fact that its music is about as far from the mainstream as it’s possible to get without becoming avant-garde and willfully obscure.
Last week, singer and multi-instrumentalist Yorke released the latest in an ever-increasing list of side projects from Radiohead members. Unlike his 2006 solo album, “The Eraser,” this new venture is far from a one-man show. Atoms for Peace is a legitimate band, with Yorke, Radiohead/Beck/Paul McCartney producer Nigel Godrich, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, percussionist Marco Refosco and drummer Joey Waronker joining forces in the creation of the debut effort, “Amok” (XL Recordings).
No big deal, one might reasonably suggest. After all, many a successful rock musician indulges in the “vanity project” or even the “supergroup” model, when their main gig is on temporary hold. The advance buzz on Atoms for Peace suggested that the music would be “electronic” in nature, which might have suggested to some of the naysayers frustrated by Radiohead’s insistence on distancing itself from the conventional instrumentation and more easily recognized song structures of yore that this would be another “laptop” album, not unlike Yorke’s “Eraser.”
That’s not the case here. What “Amok” turns out to be is far more interesting. In fact, it’s nothing less than an attempt to translate the electronic music conception of the “mash-up” – wherein more than one song is played simultaneously, in effect, creating a third element, via hybridization – into a living, breathing live ensemble art form. (When Frank Zappa was doing similar things in the late 1960s and throughout the ’70s, the process was known as xenocrony. Mash-up has more of a visceral ring to it, perhaps.)
“Amok” does indeed run amok over conventional notions of rhythm and, in some cases, harmony. Often, seemingly disparate and contradictory grooves occupy the same time and space, while melodies hang in a disembodied nature in the ether above them, as if eager to distance themselves from the fray. At first blush, this is all incredibly disconcerting. But over time, “Amok” proves to be addictive, a heady listen imbued with the thrill of new discovery.
Radiohead’s recent albums – “The King of Limbs” and “In Rainbows” among them – did this, too. But Atoms for Peace differentiates itself from Yorke’s “other band” by concentrating on DJ culture as a source of raw materials. House, dub-step, glitch electronica and various permutations of the above form the rhythmic basis of the album. That’s all well and good, though it might be seen by some as an attempt by musicians in their 40s to appear hip and relevant to the dance club kids and indie brats. It’s what Yorke and company do with this material that makes “Amok” a subversive act, however. Clearly, the assembled are searching for the ghost in the machine. What you hear when the album, ahem, spins, is the sound of a battle between technology and humanity.
Who wins? That remains as unclear now as it was when Yorke and Radiohead first pitched a similar battle with “OK Computer.” In a sense, that earlier magnum opus prefigured the war to come. Recall that email was considered a luxury when “OK Computer” hit the streets. DJs were not yet considered rock stars. Aspiring artists still sought the approval and patronage of major record labels. And Auto-Tune was known as the vocoder, a device used to purposely make the human voice sound like a paranoid android, not to cover up vocal imperfections or homogenize the human voice. Yet somehow, Yorke seemed to know what was coming.
With Atoms for Peace, Yorke and Godrich whittled down hours and hours of studio jams into raw materials they could cut and paste into form after the fact. Interestingly, the father of this sort of recording studio behavior was not some hipster DJ or computer whiz kid, but in fact, a short-haired, tie-wearing jazz musician and Columbia Records house producer known as Teo Macero. Working with Miles Davis, Macero chopped up analog tape of Davis’ band improvising in the studio, and then reassembled those tapes into records like “In A Silent Way,” “Bitches Brew,” “Live Evil” and “On the Corner.” Yorke may be popping up at hip clubs to perform DJ sets these days, but make no mistake – he knows damn well where his cut-and-paste methodology comes from.
The final bit of the process (and certainly, “Amok” is an album that is all about “the process”) will involve Atoms for Peace performing this material live – in a sense, returning the music to the state of raw organicism from whence it came. More than a mere concert, this will be more like a war between machine and man over the very soul of the music.