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Pop album review: Atoms for Peace's 'Amok' a magnetic ride

The supergoup is unquestionably Thom Yorke's project, but a rhythm section that includes Flea and Joey Waronker moves fluidly.

February 25, 2013|By Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
  • Atoms for Peace is made up of Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, Joey Waronker of Beck & R.E.M. and Brazilian instrumentalist Mauro Refosco.
Atoms for Peace is made up of Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke, Red Hot Chili… (XL Recordings )

To call bassist Flea's new collaborative effort, Atoms for Peace, a departure for the versatile musician is to underestimate the scope of his talents. Over his 30-year career, he's played punk bass, slap bass, jazz bass, trance bass, arena rock bass and nearly naked tube-sock bass.

On "Amok," the five-man supergroup's debut album, the artist known for his work as a nihilist in "The Big Lebowski" — oh, and as a founding member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers — provides mesmerizing doses of hypnosis bass to create some of the most groove-heavy lines of his career.

Coupled with drummer Joey Waronker, whose work has propelled artists including Beck, Elliott Smith, R.E.M., Air and dozens of others, and Forro in the Dark percussionist Mauro Refosco's Brazil-inspired thumps, and you've got a tightly bolted rhythm section built to move with fluid, aerodynamic flow.

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Is it a provocation to shine a beam on the rhythm section before Radiohead singer-lyricist Thom Yorke, the most prominent member of a band that also includes longtime Radiohead producer and multi-instrumentalist Nigel Godrich? Certainly. Atoms for Peace, named after a solo Thom Yorke song, is unquestionably Yorke's project; otherwise, they might have left a few of these as instrumentals.

But the grand success of "Amok," a magnetic, convincing ride from start to finish, comes as much from the percussive fluidity and experimentation churning underneath these nine headphones-required songs as it does from the mellifluous vocalist spinning above.

That's the nature of the proverbial supergroup, though, a rock species whose specimens include Cream, Asia, the Traveling Wilburys, Damn Yankees, Westside Connection and the Dead Weather. Atoms for Peace is inarguably a supergroup, and one that's much better than the more lumbering dinosaurs listed above.

Made up of musicians whose success affords them the opportunity to collaborate for a ready-madepublic, such a group often exists as a kind of tension release, and a way to prove mettle in a different musical arena. In most instances the price of failure is more often an ego bruise than a career blow so, in theory, artists are more apt to take creative chances.

In fact, when Atoms for Peace first converged in 2009 for a series of live performances, including at the Echoplex in Los Angeles, it sounded at times like a Can tribute band. The influential German group from the late 1960s and '70s helped forge the future of experimental groove music by marrying rigid but captivating Teutonic structures with groovy Africa-inspired textures. Atoms for Peace did the same, and filled the low-ceiling, high-volume room with lots of Flea's bass and driving, majestic percussion. (Members of the band have announced three March shows in support of "Amok," to take place in Berlin, London and New York, though as of now none of the gigs will feature all five members.)

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Fleshed out in the studio, the depth of the work reveals itself. "Amok" is a batch of focused yet expansive tracks. Listen to "Stuck Together Pieces" for evidence. Drums, congas, shakers and electric bass lines bump around the head like a grand finale balloon drop while Yorke whispers in a beautiful voice the mantra "You won't get away so easily" and an analog synth groans in the background.

"Dropped" has the feel of an electronics experiment from 1979 zapped into the present, a track whose foundational organ-wash melody sounds like the backing track for an Atari video game but whose speed and urgency eventually shift into overdrive to push the song heavier. The closing title track recalls the proto-electronics period as well, with synthetic keyboard tones and cheap-sounding hand-clap beats writ large with full-frequency arrangements.

The nine songs are of a kind, the result of an intermingling of instrumental excursions among five expert players augmented with studio flourishes and textured additions that blur the line between performance and production. But then, that's the nature of contemporary pop and rock in 2013, when sound editing allows a seamless integration between acoustic and electronic tones.

As gratifying as it is to focus on the rhythms and textures on "Amok" rather than dwell on the singer, the record is the most exciting Yorke project since Radiohead's "In Rainbows" in 2007. It's got the experimental verve of "Kid A" and "Amnesiac," but with bigger, more voluminous results. Awash with beats, rhythms, electronics, the occasional guitar and Yorke's soaring if still mostly unintelligible tenor, "Amok" is a record to get sonically lost within, a work whose every measure teems with a quality and a precision that only musicians at the top of their game can touch.

Atoms for Peace

"Amok"

(XL Recordings)

4 stars

randall.roberts@latimes.com

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