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Atoms for Peace, ‘Amok’ (XL)

Thom Yorke's Atoms for Peace / Photo via EXIT festival
SPIN Rating: 6 of 10
Release Date: February 26, 2013
Label: XL

Let us begin with praise for the man known to the government as Michael Peter Balzary, but to his fans and the general public simply as Flea, bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, one of the most unfairly shit-upon pop-rock groups of our time. Flea, the Los Angeles outcast who studied jazz trumpet at USC before stumbling into a band famous for songs like “Party on Your Pussy.” Flea, the man whose playing is nimble and melodic enough to whistle, but strong enough to hold up the songs of his main band like steel suspension cables. Flea, the man who prefers to not wear a shirt, and in doing so, persists as an image of goofball irreverence and actual freedom, which as all who are free know, stands naked.

Flea’s playing is typically great and sorely underused on Amok, an album people will likely identify as “that new one by the guy from Radiohead,” a band who unlike Red Hot Chili Peppers have been frequently praised as great art, in part by sublimating subjects like pussy entirely. Also on board is Radiohead producer and Beck affiliate Nigel Godrich, sometime-David Byrne and Chili Peppers percussionist Mauro Refosco, and Joey Waronker, a versatile and talented drummer you’ve heard countless times without knowing it.

The band’s first album after four years as a live entity, consists of approximately two songs masquerading as nine, all of them built on glitchy, twitchy, West African-inspired rhythms and synthesizers that dilate and contract like a steampunk breathing apparatus. Songs chug tensely forward and fizzle without catharsis. From a dim corner, Yorke mutters abstractions about fear in his high, trembly voice. All is to say that it sounds like more semi-experimental songs about modern anxiety, not radically different in execution from either Radiohead’s King of Limbs or Yorke’s 2006 solo album, The Eraser, though more monochromatic than both.

In discrete parts, it’s as beautiful as you’d expect: The nightmarish way “Unless” quietly circles its own drain; the faux-soul hook of “Judge, Jury and Executioner,” and really, the finely wrought synthesizer textures throughout, which are as soft, warm and unsettlingly stagnant as a pile of used tissues — maybe the best expression of the Radiohead paradigm that Yorke has been involved with. Actually, you could make a high-minded argument that Amok is the apex of Radiohead’s whole worldview: it’s as subtle, unnerving and non-narrative as eight hours spent sitting behind a desk.

Which is a minor shame. It’s genuinely difficult to imagine that any of the involved parties made Amok for the money, and yet it gives off a safe-bet/low-risk feeling: Free of progress despite having nothing to lose, and overly serious despite having nothing to prove. I hear they’re even asking Flea to keep his shirt on.