Amok is the much-heralded debut by Thom Yorke’s “supergroup” with Chili Peppers bassist Flea, but anybody expecting a funkier Radiohead or a dressed-down RHCP will be in for a surprise. Co-producer and sixth ’Head Nigel Godrich has likened the album’s assembly to the way Miles Davis and his studio right-hand man Teo Macero made their late 60s masterwork In A Silent Way; he and Yorke have also described it as an attempt to blur the lines between organic and electronic sound.
In that respect, it’s a qualified success. There are moments of warped magic – haunting melodies, neat instrumental hooks, surprising turns of key and mood – but there are also times when you suspect it might have been more interesting to hear what Yorke and his collaborators came up with in the studio before it got eaten by ProTools.
To recap, then: in late 2009, after belatedly deciding to tour his three-year-old solo debut, The Eraser, Yorke put together a new band named after a track from the album with Flea, Godrich, Beck/REM drummer Joey Waronker, and Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco. The following spring, after an eight-date tour of the US, Yorke stuck around for a few more days in LA with his new bandmates, hanging out in Californian sunshine, playing pool, listening to Fela Kuti, and jamming from noon till night in a Hollywood studio.
The nine tracks on Amok were borne out of those sessions, though since that initial burst of activity, Yorke and Godrich have spent the best part of two years fusing fragments of the original Afrobeat-inspired jams with layers of criss-crossing rhythms, synths, and vocal mantras. In that sense, the closest reference point is not so much Davis’ work with Macero but Brian Eno’s early-80s collaborations with David Byrne and Talking Heads (a recurring influence ever since Yorke and his Oxford pals decided to call themselves Radiohead).
Amok opens with two of its strongest tracks. “Look out the window/What’s passing you by?” Yorke wonders on Before Your Very Eyes… as skittish percussion rubs up against a chattering guitar riff and a suitably robust Flea bassline. The Eraser-like Default, the album’s first single, is a pocket epic of fluttering beats and backwardsounding synths, while the closing title track is another highlight: a kaleidoscopic piece reminiscent at times of Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion.
Elsewhere, Unless pits horror movie synths against stop-start rhythms as Yorke chants the phrase “I couldn’t care less” over and over; Dropped is a similarly otherworldly bass-led beast; Reverse Running another collision of meandering one-note guitar and grumbling bass. Stuck Together Pieces is one of the better patchwork efforts, a heady mix of lithe Afro-dubstep beats, wheezy synths, and strummed half-chords. By contrast, Judge Jury & Executioner feels more thrown-together than stuck, its jagged two-step rhythm and mournful backing vocals suffering by comparison to stronger moments in the Radiohead back catalogue. “I went for my usual walk,” Yorke sings on the latter, but at times you wonder if he might have taken another fork in the road.