Some Observations On Atoms For Peace’s “Unless”

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Thom Yorke’s musical project, Atoms For Peace, brought together a number of fine musicians to jam out and record rhythmically propulsive grooves which Yorke and the producer Nigel Godrich then edited together. The result, AMOK, is a lean, hybrid acoustic-electronic work that has been described in The Guardian as “surprisingly accessible for one so extensively jammed then spliced together by machines. The sound design is immaculate; the grooves palpable.” I have to agree with this assessment, and here are some further observations:

1. It uses just a few sounds: Yorke’s plaintive voice, an analog-sounding bassline and few keyboard chords harmonizing it (at the interval of a 10th), programmed kick drum, cross stick, and hi hat. Further along in the song we also hear an electric bass and guitar and a few additional electronic percussive sounds and effects here and there. All of the sounds–including Yorke’s voice–have a dry, reverb-free an up-close proximity to them.

2. The bassline and keyboard outline a six-measure progression in C minor that repeats. But because the progression begins on and keeps returning to G (the fifth degree of the scale), it has a perpetual sense of unresolvedness and thus musical tension. The harmonies from this cyclic progression remind me of the music of Arvo Part. Also, against the underlying 4/4 meter of the song, the progression’s six-measure length is pleasingly un-obvious; six-measure phrases are not the norm in popular music.

3. The tempo is a fast and energized 130BPM. The rhythmic feel is syncopated–the cross stick hits are always on the “and” of beats two and four. The feel of this beat reminds me of another track I recently wrote about: DJ Rashad’s “Feelin’, particularly the quickfire 123-123-12 kick drum pattern.

4. Yorke’s voice isn’t privileged in the mix; it’s about the same volume as the other sounds. This has the effect of making the words he sings just another part of the affective sense of the music.

5. The music doesn’t have a verse-chorus-bridge structure found in so much pop. There are no harmonic modulations, only subtle shifts. For instance, at 1:28 the keyboards become momentarily angular and syncopated, highlighting a three feel over the 4/4 meter; at 2:26 (on the album version, not on the YouTube clip below) the electric bass enters and Yorke’s vocals are multiplied as background parts are panned hard left and right. Subtle shifts like that.

6. The piece is concise, moving through its different moments swiftly and ending once it has made its musical point.

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