Amok, by Atoms for Peace, is a record with a lot of names you need to know, the first being art designer Stanley Donwood. Perhaps best known for creating all of Radiohead’s post-Pablo Honey album art, Donwood has made a name for himself by ambitiously pushing the traditional confines of album art.
Case in point, one of his more striking designs was that for 2006’s The Eraser, Radiohead front man Thom Yorke’s solo effort with longtime producer Nigel Godrich, for which Donwood constructed a sprawling apocalyptic tableau. Done in the soft style of a woodblock print, the full design required nearly two albums worth of foldout space just to hold it all. Considering the music from that album, The Eraser’s artwork seems more inherently suited to Yorke’s general musical tendencies rather than consciously tailored to that specific set of songs.
With Amok, on the other hand, Donwood’s artwork couldn’t fit it better: a striking, expressionist rendition of yet another disastrous scene, this time all straight edges and stark contrasts. It evokes the styles of Charles Burns, or perhaps the opening credits of a Fritz Lang film; either way, the listener is given a clear indication of the sonic landscape they’re about to enter.
There’s a logical sense to Yorke’s adoption of the title Atoms for Peace for this new project. The track of the same name off of The Eraser is laden with wishes for a better future, set against an ambient electronic background that doesn’t wholly encourage such hopes. It’s unlikely that Amok was constructed intentionally as a concept album, given how much of it stemmed from the jam sessions of Yorke’s The Eraser touring band (the same lineup as Atoms for Peace, consisting of Flea and Mauro Refosco of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Joey Waronker of Beck). Still, from the lullaby assurances of “Before Your Very Eyes…” to the rebellious verve of “Stuck Together Pieces”, there is a defined theme running through Amok, a theme of life lived in preparation for the worst.
The unity of Amok’s nine tracks stems beyond any perceived thematic arc, and is equally attributable to Yorke’s notably restrained vocal performances. Now, “restrained” might not connote much for a singer like Yorke, who one could rarely describe as anything approaching bombastic. Still, the dude’s utilized his striking falsetto range in the past (see “Bodysnatchers” and “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” off 2007’s In Rainbows) to energizing effect, a goal that is not quite in line with Amok’s sensibilities.
Sure, there are some lively tracks here: “Default” remains propulsive even as it lays on the discordant hums and echos, and “Dropped” is an especially catchy track once the momentum kicks in at the minute mark. For all the portents of doom that Amok shrouds itself in, the music here is always engaging and alive, especially when Flea’s bass or Waronker’s drums are discernible from Yorke and Godrich’s programing. So it is, again, that Yorke’s decision to never let his tenor get too soaring or powerful help keep the album grounded with a real emotional resonance.
Said resonance spirals inward as the album draws to a close. In its first third, the songs of Amok evoke themes of growth, while the middle bit portrays an acclimation and eventual submission to the blissful, fleeting comforts of adult life. With “Judge Jury and Executioner,” we begin to see the inevitable decline of the world in Donwood’s art. Things grow slower and more solemn with “Reverse Running,” where Yorke’s layered vocals make their last gasp of spirit before the storm overtakes them. That storm, comprised in the final titular track of wailing winds and Flea’s heartbeat bass-line, all but drown out Yorke’s attempts at human connection, “a penny for your thoughts.”
Again, this all suggests a gloom that isn’t rooted in hopelessness so much as simple existential weariness. The sub-textual tale of Amok is essentially timeless, one that reoccurs every generation as the old assure the young that they are nearing the end of all things. As we grow, however, we find that such endings float from reach, receding beyond even our current hardships. With Atoms for Peace, Yorke and all his collaborators have deftly succeeded in capturing the stark truth and beauty of that story, while scoring it a soundtrack to boot.