Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
“You’re all thinking, what the fuck’s going on?” Thom Yorke smirked into his mounted microphone on Friday night at London’s Atoms For Peace launch party, fiddling with his guitar and looking out at his audience from behind a wall of equipment. “Well, so are we.”
Atoms For Peace is the new project from Yorke and his long-time collaborator Nigel Godrich, who produced all of Radiohead’s releases from ‘OK Computer’ onwards, and who was also there to perform at Friday’s launch party. ‘Amok’, their debut album, is the evolutionary result of Yorke’s 2006 solo album ‘The Eraser’, a record that saw him step back from the arena-filling sounds of Radiohead and express himself through his laptop. Taking all the best elements of that sound experiment and making them fleshier and more substantial – with the addition of musicians Joey Waronker, Maura Refusco and Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ bassist Flea – the Atoms For Peace sound combines the scatter-brained sonic imagination of ‘The Eraser’ with the band that brought a humanity and a looseness to its live performances. Apparently fuelled by already-mythologised, Fela Kuti-inspired late-night jamming sessions and recorded within an intense three day period, the record speaks to the supercharged moment of influence, sewing the spontaneity of performance into the very recording. Right from the afrobeat-tinged opening bars of Before Your Very Eyes, the record is in conversation with everything that came before it, and yet overwhelmingly present.
“what is within is also stream of consciousness is also gibberish and also just sounds. by the time the words have stuck, they have just stuck. the glue is set and i can’t undo.” – Thom Yorke on lyrics
What gives the record life is its humanised take on a mechanised process. Despite being a direct result of Yorke’s fascination with underground dance music, this collection of songs speaks through shuddering basslines courtesy of Flea – whose thumb dominates the phenomenal tracks Judge Jury and Executioner and Stuck Together Pieces – adventurous and wilfully strange percussion and the use of Yorke’s voice, more than ever before, as one instrument among a cacophony. Default is firmly the best track on the album, even after obsessive plays since mid-2012 – those teasing first two bars, followed by the exhalation that brings it all to life and the incessant hum that knocks you off your feet, capture all the collaborative energy that gives ‘Amok’ its heartbeat. As Yorke sings “I felt completely free”, beats swim in and out of focus, and among all the skittering, cavernous noises, you feel pretty free, too.
Atoms For Peace – Default
If the voice is an instrument on ‘Amok’, so too are the lyrics. During Thom and Nigel’s recent Ask Me Anything session on Reddit, Thom wrote on the question of where his lyrics come from, “what is within is also stream of consciousness is also gibberish and also just sounds. by the time the words have stuck, they have just stuck. the glue is set and i can’t undo. before that is a messy bit.” On ‘Amok’ more than ever before, this feels true – the lyrics feel like musical matter, as though they cling to the beats as part of their texture rather than standing on their own feet. This feels particularly relevant to the line “I am weightless”, which sublimely comes right before the weight of the bass plunges through on Unless, and of the eponymous refrain of Judge Jury And Executioner, a phrase which Yorke has used before on the Radiohead record ‘Hail To The Thief’ (as a subtitle for Myxamatosis), and which he admitted during a recent FACT interview he hadn’t intended to deliberately re-use. The words just fit, and naturally glued themselves to the track – once they were there, they couldn’t be unstuck. “Just tell it like it is,/ Tell it like it was” he urges on the same track, boiling the record down to a set of impulses, its lyrics down to a set of urge-driven statements that capture a moment. Just telling it like it is.
Atoms For Peace – Judge Jury And Executioner
“Are you a Radiohead fan?” one audience member asks another next to me, back at the launch party, as the set lulls into a meandering, guitar-led groove. “Yeah…” the addressee responds non-commitally. “Do you have ‘The Eraser’?” they persist, only to be rewarded with a blank look.
“Older and more assured, Yorke’s taking time to enjoy music for its own sake, and he wants you to do the same, to stop thinking about what might be going on and to just move.”
Trying to put this record into the context of Radiohead’s work is tricky. It might be easy to be critical of those who come to an Atoms For Peace gig without ever having bought a Radiohead album; equally, some might shake their heads at the guitar-loving fans that come to an Atoms For Peace rave with ear protectors in, not dancing, looking a bit concerned. These different tribes illustrate perfectly, in the very fact of their existence, the central fact of ‘Amok’ – that is, your enjoyment of it depends on what you come to it expecting to hear. It depends what side of the fence you’re on; it depends if you, like Yorke and Godrich, think maybe there isn’t a fence at all.
It feels worthwhile, then, although obvious, to emphasise that this is a new thing. A wholly different thing. Despite its moments of sheer abandon – despite me apparently writing in my phone at some point, “SOUNDS LIKE NOTHING I’VE EVER HEARD” – the Atoms For Peace live show (and album) doesn’t quite resonate like Radiohead’s music does. It’s a richly textured sonic world, doing for the body what the famous band do to the emotions. Unlike a Radiohead gig, there’s no intense moment of connection to a song that defines something for you, there’s no impassioned identification. What there is, in place of all that, is a constant battle with your own limbs as you figure out how to undulate to these curveball beats. There’s tension, pressure, release.
Atoms For Peace live at their launch party at London’s Oval Space, 22/02/13.
Nobody knows what the fuck’s going on; the crowd is a shoulder-rubbing patchwork of people from entirely different backgrounds and generations, the record thumps and weaves its way over our heads and Thom is crooning “careless, I couldn’t care less.” Older and more assured, he’s taking time to enjoy music for its own sake, and he wants you to do the same, to stop thinking about what might be going on and to just move – as he told The Guardian recently, “the idea was for once in my life just to enjoy the energy of it and not want to pull it apart.” ‘Amok’ is the most bodily work Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich have produced; when taken as such, it’s also some of their best.