TO BORROW A NUCLEAR metaphor, Atoms For Peace’s debut album as a group – February’s Amok – has yet to achieve critical mass. Supported by scant interviews and select gigging, it has crept out rather than bust loose, almost as if it were waiting for something… but what? Perhaps this. The group’s Friday night show at London’s Roundhouse show has readymade buzz – maybe because Yorke followers are used to challenging, cerebral records being followed by visceral live incarnations. Remember Radiohead’s revelatory 2001 shows that fleshed out the Kid A picture?
Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien does, and he’s here tonight (Travis’s Fran Healy, too, greying, with trilby), perhaps with one half-nervous eye on this Yorke side project with potential to derail Radiohead’s arena art-rock juggernaut. If so, anxiety levels will have leapt into the red and stayed there for pretty much all of a show packed with revelations: great music made greater by great musicians, but emotional fireworks, too.
Goaded by the all-action Flea on bass, bullying the beat along, revolving his head, legs kicking and bopping underneath what we must call a skirt, Yorke is also perpetual motion – his dorky kung-fu dancing combining with his ponytail and black vest to evoke a mid-’90s Megadog vibe. Between them they light a fire under the material, a mix of Amok and Yorke’s 2006 solo album, The Eraser, plus surprises: UNKLE/Yorke collaboration Rabbit In Your Headlights and Radiohead rarity Paperbag Writer.
New aspects to this music arrive thick and fast, with the gimlet-y recorded skeletons gaining flesh and drama: bass music for those who thought it too dry for their taste. Default has an enormous, almost gothic richness, and as Yorke and sidekick Nigel Godrich strap on electric guitars for The Clock, they clang metallically like a gunfight between Ennio Morricone and Johnny Cash.
Staccato and relentless, there are echoes of early-’80s masters of electronic darkness – Cabaret Voltaire, Shriekback – bejewelled with detail by magnificently arrayed percussionist Mauro Refosco, who plays vibraphone, berimbau, washboard, a kind of mad timbale tree, adding the skittery tics and niggles that bring drummer Joey Waronker’s bug-eyed beats to life.
These are not jolly songs: Yorke’s Harrowdown Hill – his rumination on WMD dossier scapegoat Dr David Kelly – sounds heartbroken, forsaken; bad thoughts and apocalyptic visions abound. But Atoms For Peace evince an equal yet opposite intensity to the static, stately Radiohead. The high, battering tempos, Yorke’s constant movement and his relaxed interaction with the crowd – there is even a comedy Northerner routine – direct all energy outwards. Stripped of the burden of being Thom Yorke Out Of Radiohead, with echoey vocal treatments that seem to take him further outside of himself, he is having something that, for Thom Yorke, translates as fun.
One of the last songs is dedicated to Ed O’Brien. “I borrowed his guitar,” says Yorke, brandishing O’Brien’s Epiphone Casino. “He might not know I borrowed it, but here it is…”
It’s not just his guitar that Ed needs to worry about. Atoms For Peace is a band.