Sunday, September 29, 2013

Explosive Atoms In Brooklyn

Thom Yorke is a wise man but I have to admit questioning the wisdom of booking Atoms For Peace in 20,000 seaters like the Barclay's Center in Brooklyn. While it is true that getting tickets when they first went on sale took a little work, there wasn't nearly as much browser refreshing as when tickets for Radiohead (his "other" band) went on sale a year prior. Atoms For Peace, while labeled a "super group" by many, is musically more esoteric than Radiohead and has none of the halo of that band's now ancient hit single to propel it. Having experienced the excellent sound Radiohead was able to achieve at the Prudential Center in Newark, I was more open to going to an arena show, especially in an even newer building. The thought of a half-empty arena was not so appealing, however, and when tickets were still available on the day of the show, it seemed my fears might well be realized.

After a great feast at Habana Outpost, my daughter and I walked into Barclays shortly before 8:00pm. The merch table was swarming but there was no line at security and the trip to our seats was unencumbered. I couldn't remember where we had ended up and was slightly surprised that the best seats I could get at my price point were up against the wall, at the very top of the arena. I had likely picked them because they were just slightly to the left of being dead-on to the stage. Our section, like many, was nearly empty, and the standing room on the floor held only a smattering of people.

Shortly after we arrived, the opening act took the stage with no fanfare. Performing in front of a small screen with clever hand-drawn animations was a computer/keyboard jockey and a drummer. A quick Google revealed that this was James Holden, an electronic musician, producer and DJ. The sound was complex and dynamic, with the human drummer adding a real kick. It was reminiscent of Fuck Buttons but seemed to have more of a point than their sometimes exciting but simplistically accretive music. Layering cool sounds together grows tiresome if there isn't real compositional backbone giving structure to the sounds. Holden's architecture held my interest and was enthusiastically received by the other early arrivals. If the IDM (intelligent dance music) idea interests you, his latest album, The Inheritors, is well worth seeking out.

Holden's 40 minutes passed quickly and and when the lights went back up, there were definitely more bodies in the building. While the roadies readied the stage, we listened to Duke Ellington - a little off-center but I never tire of his band's effortless swing and brilliant arrangements. I'd be curious to know if that was a band choice or just the venue's default soundtrack. I could imagine creating more anticipation for the Atoms For Peace sound with a mix including the likes of Fela, Miles Davis and SBTRKT.

In any case, soon enough the Atoms were on stage and launching into Before Your Very Eyes..., which also opens their album, AMOK. Nigel Godrich, producer of Radiohead, Beck and others, and Yorke wielded guitars with intricacy and muscle, while drummer Joey Waronker and percussionist Mauro Refosco created an underlay of simmering polyrhythms, and Flea, bass player for Red Hot Chili Peppers, stalked the stage while pummeling his four strings. The five of them were instantly locked and it was immediately apparent that the sound would be more dynamic and colorful than the heavily cut and pasted music on AMOK.

As always with Thom Yorke, there's a startle: that voice. It fills whatever space it's unleashed in, and seems to fill you up as well. It is simply one of the marvels of modern music and was in spectacular shape from the very first. Yorke's breathtaking and enormous singing might be one very good reason for choosing a large house like the Barclay's, as it seemed to find its full expression swooping around the rafters, among the pennants celebrating the past glories of the former New Jersey Nets. Even from our seats in the gods, his dancing was also a sight to behold. He seemed to latch on to every facet of the rhythm and interpret it in a remarkably loose-limbed fashion. Some find Yorke's movement style amusing - it is certainly easy to parody - but my feeling is that he is essentially an introvert and the dancing is not for display or entertainment but rather his honest reaction to the music, which so deeply involves his body and mind.

People continued to arrive and the center was nearly full by the fourth song, the spacious and sleek Ingenue. Based on casual observation of the people around us, I suspect some of the late arrivals were fans who couldn't believe their luck and some were more casual concertgoers who caught wind of a buzz around the show. Having more life forms in the space improved the sound, which was already pretty good, and also ramped up the collective energy. It was sheer perfection when the band dug into the deep groove of Stuck Together Pieces, one of the funkiest tracks on AMOK, and the cheer that arose when it ended was spine-tingling. If there were any doubters in the crowd, they must have been fully sold by that performance.

And It Rained All Night, from Yorke's 2006 solo album The Eraser, came on like the heavy black trains described in the song, and the intensity level rose even higher with the crucial pairing of Harrowdown Hill and Dropped, which were nearly overwhelming in their power. By this point, Atoms For Peace were doling out art rock of the highest order, with Dropped taking on a steely physicality that sounded like a Di Suvero sculpture in sound.

My mind kept trying to come up with ways to describe the sound I was hearing. The image of a cross-section of earth arose, with the percussion represented by the churn of insects and worms under the surface, the grass, trees and other plants standing in for the shapes and colors of the bass, guitars, keyboards and electronics, while Yorke's voice was all the living creatures that roamed and flew about, and even the golden sun shining on it all. This image worked for me somewhat, because it allowed for the way the layers in Atoms For Peace songs tend to remain discrete, each existing on its own plane, but also dependent on interaction with all the other elements to come to life. Even with the darkest songs, as far as content goes, there was a joy radiating from the five men on stage. They were fully engaged, playing at the top of their abilities, and exactly where they wanted to be. It was a privilege to witness.

I had a feeling Yorke would pull out either some old songs or a great cover or two but was still surprised during the first encore when he sat at the upright piano and started to sing Rabbit In Your Headlights, his collaboration with UNKLE from 1998. Co-written with DJ Shadow, the haunting song found new life in the Atoms arrangement. They followed it up with a fairly obscure Radiohead song, Paperbag Writer from the 2004 Com Lag (2Plus2IsFive) compilation. Coming as they did after a performance of Yorke's 2009 song Feeling Pulled Apart By Horses, the three songs constituted a mini-retrospective and clearly displayed the continuity in his work regardless of his collaborators.

By the end of the encore, there was no sense that the band had held anything back, but still the lights stayed down and Duke Ellington remained silent. After a few minutes pause, they returned and generously played two more songs, both from The Eraser. Atoms For Peace (the song) was adapted beautifully from its original version, with Flea parceling out the notes of the baseline as if he were just discovering them, and the comforting folk-derived melody enveloping the audience. It seemed almost inevitable that they would end with Black Swan, with it's darkly triumphant chorus: "We are black swans, black swans (but I made it to the top, but I made it to the top)." The song's bitter refrain of "This is fucked up, fucked up," was mined more for its rhythmic possibilities than the well of anger in the album version. I couldn't make out Yorke's face in that moment, but I felt a wry grin as he appreciated the transmutation of his dark night of the soul becoming an occasion of musical bliss not only for the ensemble on stage, but for the assembled in the audience.

The lights went up, the Duke returned, and we made our way through the excited throng back to the merch table, which was once again swarming. After buying t-shirts, my daughter and I went outside. There were groups lingering in the plaza, including a circle of friends sitting around one of the lights in the pavement. I got the impression they were trying to preserve the moment and I felt the same way.

AMOK is a great album and has made for fascinating listening since its release earlier this year. But I couldn't help thinking that it might sound slightly wan compared to the visceral and explosive music that filled the Barclay's Center on Friday. Perhaps Thom Yorke has a philosophical objection to live albums, or at least ambivalence, but I would urge him to reconsider and put together an official record of what he and his Atoms For Peace compatriots have been able to achieve on stage. It was tremendously exciting as it happened and should not be allowed to simply evanesce. I know it will stay with me for some time.

This short clip gives a hint of the moment when Harrowdown Hill ended. Get to the show and hear and see for yourself.

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