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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

ATOMS FOR PEACE - AMOK

XL Recordings XLLP583 (2013, February)

Rating: 8.7/ A

Format: Vinyl (2x140 gram LP at 45 rpm)
Category: Electronica/IDM


Musicians:

- Flea: bass guitar (tracks 1, 3, 5, 6, 7)
- Mauro Refosco: percussion (all except track 9)
- Joey Waronker: drums (all except track 2)
- Thom Yorke: vocals, keyboards, programming, guitars, piano
- Nigel Godrich: programming, production
- Engineer [Additional Engineering]: Drew Brown
- Engineer [Live Recording]: Darrell Thorp
- Mastered by: Brian Gardner at Bernie Grundman Mastering
- Artwork [Lost Angeles Lost]: Stanley Donwood


In Amok Time, Spock must try to suppress his inner emotions in order to reign control over the natural demons that coexist within his usual logically-linear demeanor.

 
I suspect that Red Hot Chili Pepper bassist Flea must surely sympathise with our Vulcan friend, for his signature slap bass is nowhere to be found on this debut album. Indeed for all we know he might as well have succumb to a mind meld so much his playing sounds subdued.


As for vocalist Thom Yorke (on keyboards, piano and guitar also), there is no such Metamorphosis; the Radiohead lead singer simply slithers in smoothly as if this was his natural habitat or a plausible prospective avenue his English cohorts could coalesce in the near future. In fact, - prior to reading the credits - I was under the impression that the drums and percussion were 'under the baton' of Brit bandmate Phil Selway when in reality, Beck drummer Joey Waronker and Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco - who worked among others with Federico Aubele - more than hold their own on the groovy metronomic pulse.


With this hip line-up, one could consider Atoms For Peace a modern day version of the supergroup; oftentimes this is a recipe for disaster with each 'ego-driven' member vying for the spotlight but on occasion, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Some of the earliest ones, turned out to be quite successful and creative such as Cream in 1966 followed closely by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in 1968 as well as Emerson, Lake & Palmer in 1970. And if one were to enlarge the definition to other genres, there would be many in the jazz circle that could easily fit in, with Miles Davis certainly coming out on top as leader of two great quintets and many other formations that would include and spun future jazz giants such as John Coltrane, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones, Bill Evans, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock just to mention a few.

 
Turning back to the subject at hand; this is not a big departure for Yorke, having experimented outside of the Radiohead shell before on his 'solo' debut - The Eraser [XL Recordings XLLP200] back in 2006. The latter was produced by band compatriot Nigel Godrich. On Amok he reprises his role as keyboard programmer and producer; leaving his sonic imprint all over this side project. Accordingly, some may find parallels between both 'spin-offs' relying heavily on structured beats while navigating the narrow border between electronica and experimental.


The album was released in two versions. A deluxe triple gatefold limited edition with debossed foil stamped on 180 gram vinyl including a download code and a regular edition also comprising two 45 rpm LPs but on a lighter pressing of approximately 140 gram. Being limited to 3000 copies the former sold out almost immediately. British artist Dan Rickwood aka Stanley Donwood designed the front and back covers on both editions - a close collaboration reaching back to 1995 on The Bends LP - which mainly differ in their respective monochrome ratio, the limited version sporting more black and a hint of greenish bronze at some places. For this edition, the squared-side black and white carton jacket does not unfold and therefore both records share the same compartment. These are inserted in their respective plain white carton sleeve with a label cut-out. Although nicer than a regular paper sleeve, there is no further vinyl protection so care should be taken during insertion and removal steps; thankfully the sleeves are not too tight to cause static charges.

The labels are stylistically identical to one another consisting of 3 black circles somewhat similar to a 'tic tac toe' pattern horizontally aligned over a white background. The medium-weight LP is pressed at RTI in California. The first record was flat but the second one was a touch dished and caused a mild 'wave' sound in the lead-in groove before the music started - certainly the tight cellophane wrap did not help matters; fortunately the music 'drowned out' any wave (pardon the pun). All four sides were shiny lustered and black, with nice wide groove patterns hinting at good frequency bandwidth. Only a few minor 'tics' appeared before or between tracks but by and large, the vinyl noise floor stayed pretty quiet the whole time.


Working in Hollywood California at Bernie Grundman Mastering, famed funk-disco-hip hop engineer Brian "Big Bass" Gardner chose a groove-spacing travel of 3 1/4 inches for side A and a hair over 3 inches for side B; 3 1/16 inches for side C and 3 3/8 inches for side D. With roughly 11 minutes of music on side A; 9:30 on side B; 10 minutes on side C and 14 minutes on side D this translates to approx. 3.4 min./inch; 3.2 min./inch; 3.3 min./inch and 4.1 min./inch of linear cutting displacement respectively. At 45 rpm, there should be no problem regarding the side-timings apart from side D which is slightly over the usual 12 minute recommended limit before high frequency distortion becomes intrusive. Inscribed in the dead wax are the following phrases: 'LITTLE FIREWORKS OF JOY' on side A; 'TYING ROUND REELS OF STRINGS' and 'THE SOUND MASTERS' (indicating where the lacquer was cut) on side B; 'JUST HAVING THEIR FUN' on side C and 'TRYING TO GET YOUR ATTENTION' on side D. All 'wax' inscriptions appearing on both editions reinforce the probability that the latter are sourced from the same metal stampers and differ primarily in vinyl weight - assuming all other steps remained identical (no small feat when it comes to all things vinyl). The album was recorded in Los Angeles and London at The Hospital, as well as at Joey's and Ocean Way. Engineer Darrell Thorp handled the live recording with additional engineering by Drew Brown.


Because the entire album is quite uniform in style and sound I will refrain from repeating the same comments on a track by track basis as I usually do - most albums are often quite variable in both aspects. From the onset right through the end, the cutting level was average for the perceived volume with some analog-like compression and mild to medium intended saturation to produce warm, fuzzy, felt-like textures and not surprisingly, sharing similarities with Radiohead's The King of Limbs [Ticker Tape Ltd. TICK001LP], for many of the same personnel were reunited here. This type of compression is not to be confused with aggressive gain maximizing like so many modern productions that want to 'pull-out' your eardrums after 30 seconds. Also noteworthy was that the first track - "Before Your Very Eyes" - had a small distinct veil in the treble that diminished when the second track - "Default" - started and was mostly gone on the following track - "Ingenue" - opening side B.


By the time the fourth track - "Dropped" - came on, all veils were off and top end detail shined through, widening and deepening the soundstage boundaries. What is particularly interesting in this 'unveiling sound evolution' is the reciprocity with The King of Limbs' own 'track sound incrementation'. Are we to assume that Nigel Godrich and Darrell Thorp are experts in the sly art of sneaky-sound-striptease.

 
Throughout, the mix balance is perfect; each instrument locked in a tight-grip groove, supporting Yorke's floating ethereal vocals without one overpowering the other while recalling Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer's groundbreaking "I Feel Love" that combined so effortlessly, machined rhythmic loops with icy ethereal yet sensual vocals following sequenced arpeggios. Early mid-1970s Kraftwerk, circa Autobahn [Philips 6305 231 D] and Radio-Aktivität [Kling Klang EMI Electrola 1C 062-82 087] are also evident in analog synth textures in many songs, contrasting the 'old' vs the 'new' quite efficiently. What I appreciated also was: just when you thought that the song was 'stuck in - locked - gear', they throw you a curve that comes 180 from behind and shifts the entire ambiance into another mood - impressive!

 
Whereas Yorke's previous artistic outlet bore interesting fruit, I found that this current project hits the nail with superior emotional density, intimacy and creativity. I believe that part of the reason that this supergroup album seems to work so well is that everybody seems to have put their egos aside, forming one genuine cohesive unit. It does not sound like Radiohead meets Red Hot Chili Pepper meets Beck; it simply sounds like a really great band speaking with one voice. Atoms For Peace's Amok certainly seems to be headed for one of the 'must-haves' for 2013.

Let's just hope we won't have to wait another seven year interval for the next Pon farr to materialize. Live long and prosper Atoms For Peace.

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