Kyle Loomis is a journalism senior and Mustang Daily music columnist.
Whenever a supergroup forms, the music community holds its collective breath, wondering whether this new conglomerate will blow our minds, or if it will be another example of what typically happens when you have too much of a good thing.
On Feb. 25, I was trying to decide which category Atoms for Peace’s debut album, “Amok” (XL Recordings), falls into. After a week of scrutiny, I’m still not sure. What I do know is this indecisiveness does not bode well for the album’s chances of appraisal.
The term “supergroup” was coined many years ago to define bands or groups of artists who have already become famous with other acts or as a solo artist. Case in point: Atoms for Peace, which consists of Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, R.E.M. drummer Joey Waronker and Brazilian instrumentalist Mauro Refosco.
Yorke’s most noteworthy side project before Atoms, his 2006 brainchild album “The Eraser,” was not as dynamic as the best of Radiohead, though Yorke was commended by critics for his artistic ventures into a heavily synthetic, tremulous and bizarre world only found far outside the box. “Amok” takes you to the same faraway places as “The Eraser,” but with more texture, and more mass.
Many of the album’s tracks were developed by Yorke and Godrich in 2009 and 2010, around the time when the non-Radiohead-originated band members only had time for a handful of performances, often under the name “Thom Yorke????” At Coachella 2010, I had not even realized I was listening to Flea, Waronker and Refosco materializing Yorke and Godrich’s synth shadows into full-bodied vessels, through which listeners are able to probe the deep abyss of Yorke’s universe, rather than waft aimlessly without embarkation nor destination.
Though playing Flea’s bass and the others’ percussion provide some substance to tracks driven by Yorke’s hushed, diffident vocals and distorted, fuzzy (sometimes spacey) synthesizers. The densely layered and heavily produced results are reminiscent of psychedelic ambience, as if Radiohead’s “Kid A” (2000) had a baby with any Aphex Twin song.
Unfortunately, “Amok” is artistically intriguing at best, falling short of the “Holy sh*t!” level of expectation that comes with forming an “all-star cast” of musicians. Yorke, while as delightfully cryptic lyrically as ever, doesn’t dominate the tracks with the same vocal gravitas that propels Radiohead songs forward. And Flea’s distances himself from the funky, slap-alicious bass lines the Chili Peppers are known for — which leaves “Amok” rhythmically complex, but lacking spice.
Nevertheless, Atoms for Peace is definitely worth checking out if you are a Radiohead fan. The album’s title track is a post-apocalyptic jam with space-odyssey drones and a strut-style rhythm. “Judge Jury and Executioner” adds some rare organic sounds with acoustic guitar to Yorke’s high-register crooning. “Dropped” illustrates a sci-fi carnival of noise with insistent synthesizers, an exotic drum beat and a melodic bassline.
Super from the start
Yorke and company aren’t the first supergroup experiment.
Atoms for Peace is just one of the latest collaboration projects that have been attempted by artists. Some supergroups are hugely successful, commanding massive fan bases and changing the face of music, while others turn out to epic disappointments (sorry, Audioslave).
Here are five supergroups that were a great idea.
Shame on you if you don’t know about the Traveling Wilburys. This group, formed in the late ’80s by Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, George Harrison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne, produced two albums. Known for hit singles such as “Handle With Care” and “End of the Line,” the Traveling Wilburys was a folk-rock band that boasted the best qualities of its members: Dylan’s songwriting, Harrison’s guitar, Orbison’s and Petty’s vocals and Lynne’s utility as a multi-instrumentalist.
Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters), John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin) and Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age) made a huge splash in 2009 when they announced the formation of Them Crooked Vultures, a hard, blues-rock supergroup that released one self-titled album in 2009. The band toured that year and the following year, including a number of festival appearances. The group won a Grammy for best hard rock performance for the track “New Fang.” Other great jams are “Mind Eraser, No Chaser” and “Scumbag Blues.”
3. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (CSNY)
CSNY is a textbook example of a supergroup that has reached the highest level of success possible, because its members have become more known for this act than their past bands (except for Neil Young, who is separated from the group more often than not). For those of us not alive before CSNY was formed, it’s easy to never realize Graham Nash was a member of the Hollies, David Crosby a member of the Byrds, and Stephen Stills a member of Buffalo Springfield. One day they discovered how well their voices harmonized, and rock ‘n’ roll was never the same.
4. Blind Faith
Legendary guitarist Eric Clapton is so talented that any band he was with remains a staple in the rock music community today: Cream, the Yardbirds, Derek and the Dominoes, his solo career and Blind Faith are only some of his associated acts. Clapton formed Blind Faith with Traffic’s Steve Winwood, Cream’s Ginger Baker and Family’s Ric Grech to make only one (amazing) self-titled album in 1969.
The Postal Service features the vocal and instrumental talents of Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, producer Jimmy Tamborello (known on stage as Dntel) and Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley. Hipsters rejoiced when the trio of indie artists released its first and only album, “Give Up,” in 2003, with the memorable track “Such Great Heights.” The supergroup recently released a new track, “A Tattered Line of String,” and will be touring this year, including stops at Coachella and the Alex Madonna Expo Center in San Luis Obispo on April 12.