No one artist has ever been able to so simultaneously coexist in the inherently contrasting parallel universes of the underground and the overblown quite like Thom Yorke. Tonight, he plays a refurbished marquee-like expanse around the back of Hackney Road in the shadow of the sinister gas holders that preside over the E2 skyline so, two decades on to the day from the release of Radiohead’s much since lionised début, Pablo Honey. He is a creature of contradistinction – what Tyler, The Creator may deem seething: “a fucking walking paradox.” And just days later, it is his squinting visage that’ll plaster every last Sunday supplement, each strapped with a litany of lines quoting Yorke’s newfound desire to actually enjoy that which he so enduringly does.
He’s been at it for far longer than I could even care to recall – I was still consuming semi-solids when his Oxfordian day job first came into being with a series of apparently remarkably announced, and much canonised showings at the now commercially overhauled Zodiac venue down Cowley Road, though I can vividly recall the first time I saw Radiohead. To stick with eerie coincidence, it was just down an intricate squiggle of east London road in Victoria Park where In Rainbows was so brilliantly reimagined five or so years ago. And although that venue may be but a stone’s throw away, tonight is absolutely incomparable by contrast: billed as a “two turntables and a microphone” show (a nod to infrequent collaborator Beck’s Where It’s At, I don’t doubt), this one’s less about the enigma that is Thom Yorke, and more about his unerringly challenging sonic produce.
For Yorke is one of those über celebrities who is both physical and nonphysically intangible all at once. He is, without question, one of those most pioneering songsmiths of any which epoch you could come to contemplate – a demigod in terms of his musical capability. Though at that same time, he is the same man who ambles aimless as a Polyethylene bag in the wind about Oxford’s cute streets. They’re a far cry from these meaner, and indeed cruelly windswept lanes which are lined with the deserted Friday night fried chicken shacks and heaving karaoke huts of Bethnal Green. The Oval Space itself is an unorthodox location for this sort of event to transpire, as his steadfast acolytes wind down labyrinthian back alleys round the reverse of derelict metropolitan colleges, converging upon an industrial void tucked away behind bustle and sodding blizzard. Disquietingly, it’s all that bit too redolent of the Bloc. nightmare of yesteryear although unlike Bloc., this newfangled warehouse space has been properly configured. A projection splayed out across a gargantuan gas tank reads: ‘Tell Me Where The Money Is’ and, unlike the slipshod London Pleasure Gardens locale, it’s been blown on the readying of this pretty impressive place. The scanners work and, astonishingly, this one runs that little bit later than the impromptu early morning curfew of last July.
With the builders’ scrawled pencil marks even now plaguing the bricks leading to the still shiny bathrooms, it’s evocative of an enlarged take on the Apiary Studios sat just across the road. Urbane as ever, Actress is diligently reciting a heady blend of urban and electronica. Unassuming stage-right and enshrouded in a monochromic hoodie, Yorke gazes down nonchalantly, if approvingly from a rickety balcony above. Reduced to nothing but a grim silhouette, Cunningham serves up a compelling minimalism and although scarcely visible in this pitch-black, the event feels that bit more monumental in that he’s deigned to pitch up at all.
Though I suppose you would do – it sold out in calculable instants, such is the enduring allure of all things Yorke. And the audience he so ceaselessly magnetises is, as per, decidedly Radiohead – that elite club 28–32 experience. A bout of preemptive applause greets Cunningham’s departure, and then the iPhones are out. A grotesque inevitability, maybe, as anxious chatter ensues. Though onstage there’s that bit more than the “two turntables and a microphone” anticipated, as his sunburst Gibson gets a good tuning and laptops boot up. There’s a few thousands’ worth of gadgetry on show too, rendering the premise of the evening a false advertising. We’d kvetch, were we not all so impotently infatuated with the man, though one thing worth rejoicing in is the absence of Flea. Quite what he brings to the ensemble I’m yet to fathom and given his irksome posturing, it’s something of a relief to hear of it being only Thom and legendary engineer Nigel Godrich in relevant attendance. It’s a billing which turns out to be true this time, as the duo emerge at a smidgen over half twelve.
Establishing themselves behind the luminous glow of their respective computer screens, Ingenue begins to build. It’s an immediate signalling of the entire Atoms for Peace project being representative of Yorke’s indulging of his infrequent deviations (or indeed deviances, depending on your opinion of his extracurricular works) deep into those more readily kinetic ends of the musical spectrum. It sounds big; booming as might a Modeselektor show. Its samples drip globular as though those loos aforementioned were poorly plumbed; its rhythms skitter mischievously, though still the hordes talk. They natter as though they were expecting the pair to emerge and lure Creep out from their machinery. It makes for a peculiar reaction – a mixture of discombobulation and disbelief, as Boiler Room visuals squirm in the periphery of attention. I think what makes it so unnerving is that I’ve always viewed (and sporadically revered) Yorke for being the sort of artist who would rather fabricate his own demise than compromise. It may be a hackneyed cliché in kind, though I’d with that presumed that he could make flatulent parping noises into that microphone and we’d all whoop rabidly. How wrong I was. It’s another of those shows where, in the main, people are there to be seen rather than seeing; to say they were there, corroborating this with lo-res videos and so on as opposed to actually being there in the moment, and whatnot. It’s quietly distressing, though no matter – Black Swan sounds darker; deeper; dramatically winsome.
And as he takes The Eraser from his figurative pencil case of a discography for the first of only two times tonight, it puts the entire emphasis of the project in a stark relief. That Yorke is the nucleus of Atoms for Peace – its propulsive, primary creative force. It was initially only assembled so that he might reproduce his solo work more or less as was, though that’s quite patently not his intention tonight. This is Thom having fun; doing everything on his own terms. And it’s emancipating both for artist and audience – or at least they that keep their smartphones sheathed in their pockets for the duration. He looks relaxed and at ease, even in a setting considerably more intimate than those he’s now surely become acclimatised to, if never exactly inclined toward. (It always appeared somewhat illogical to me that Radiohead should’ve played The O2 Arena late on last year, though needs must I guess.)
Tonight, however, he resembles a prepubescent school girl replete with ponytail and prepped for gym – regulation underwear as standard. There is not one turntable in sight though mercifully, that microphone allows him to wondrously complement Godrich’s glitchy knit of sample and beat on Stuck Together Pieces – a vibrant collage of guttural rumble, Hail To The Thief-like melancholy, and a rather majestic vocal.
Though still they chatter.
Again, the Boiler Room feel proves prevalent. The difference is here, however, people have supposedly paid for the privilege to skulk about sipping on Red Stripe and rather than deferentially appreciate, they instead insist upon acting out a sort of engrossing social experiment into the utter hideousness of the human race. They lick lips encrusted with illicit powders, demonstrate contempt for their contemporaries, and disregard for a total once-in-decades kinda guy. “Buy a ticket and get on the train/ ‘Cause this is fucked up” he crooned mere moments ago and as perverse as our National Rail service may be, this is that bit more fucked still. Twenty-five quid is a fair chunk to spend on an experience, the only recollection of which you’ll be capable of gleaning the morning after is to come from snatched figments of smartphone photo seen through heavily fragmented screens. It’s a byproduct of the whole cult of celebrity and though the majority may be staunch followers of the unprecedentedly androgynous figure onstage, techno aficionados they quite evidently ain’t.
Dropped is recomposed as such as it rides a murky undercurrent, as is AMOK. And, looking beyond the slighting, it’s deeply intriguing to see Thom operate as one half of a dance duo as he takes to it like a Black Swan to the oily residue often found on the floor of these sorts of establishments. The Eraser, however, is the evening’s most conventional piece – its pièce de résistance, I should so too argue. It has stood the so-called test of time, as has the remainder of the solo LP of that same name, since its original release some six years ago. It was then, 2006, that Facebook was made available to the general public although it is only now that its abiding impact torments, as those aforesaid photos are frenziedly uploaded and instantly shared with they that can only vicariously witness what these congregated highfliers have seen. Though it’s as its loopy keys converge with Yorke’s initial chiming of: “Please excuse me but I got to ask/ Are you only being nice because you want something?” that something ever so slightly extraordinary happens. With the handbrake off and his vocal looser than a rickety gearbox, he and Nigel ignite the very spirit of Glastonbury right here; right now. Beings clamber atop other beings as its opalescent ambience takes hold, traces of the Farm abounding. The pungent whiff of outlawed greenery diffuses throughout the venue, and it’s almost as though we’re there already. For Yorke is, to all extensive purposes, the festival’s official spokesperson and there is not one voice more closely affiliated with it – or at least not to my mind. That he has already nigh on self-confirmed for June makes the pulse flutter and the heart flicker like a slowly ascending Chinese lantern.
Yet for now, The Eraser is the crystalline high on an otherwise both socially and musically turbid night. Before Your Very Eyes… is gloriously woebegone – a densely effectual concoction of squalling anthemia and affected electronic bloopery, suffused with niggling static. Violently contorted, it’s evocative of Aphex as it is of fellow subvert and electronica kingpin Richie Hawtin and given his predilection for neat transitions and acute juxtapositions, with Godrich in tow Yorke may yet induct himself into such illustrious companies. In relocating to the almost exclusively electronic and with interaction kept to a bare minimum, there are moments where they appear aloof and out of touch – a trope of dance music in general – though again, this is interesting above all else, in that the duo are left to communicate via the medium of the music alone. And particularly impactive in this respect is S.A.D., during which Godrich’s again globular twitches get caught in the gossamer-like visuals scrupulously woven by Tarik Barri in the background. An offcut from AMOK – the imminent LP they’re here to launch – it bears the closest musical semblance to Yorke’s beloved and sometime accomplices, Modeselektor. “It cuts deep/ It cuts deep/ Human error” he menacingly intones with not an iota of human feeling intertwined with his voice. Its reaction, meanwhile, is grossly erroneous: if many an expression were already vapid in the face of such subversion, then oddly enough the place gradually becomes that bit more vacuous in a more physical sense as the night wears on and gradually winds down.
But genuinely, Yorke is dexterous enough to pass himself off as a DJ type. Few spin proper records any more anyway, and he’s certainly good enough to haul the hermits – myself included – out every other Friday. Even ’til two thirty. For he’s an omnitalented man responsible for many a highly versatile project, with each so too an exhilarating live prospect. And given the synthetic genetics underlying all things Atoms for Peace, in such a configuration the record sounds fully rendered. As for a band fused together to perform The Eraser, Yorke and Godrich cope astoundingly well without their auxiliary others, even if they surprise themselves in the process: “Thanks everyone! You’re all standing there thinking, ‘what the fuck’s going on?’ So are we.” And although this may as yet be a prototypal live setup for a project still to fully boot up it all works, and works very well for the most part. And never is this more so than with Default: a muffled euphoria, it sees Yorke sashay vigorously and sing self-deprecatingly, “The will is strong, but the flesh is weak/ I made my bed, I’ll lie in it.” Is this what he longs to be up to in the longer run? Is even The Eraser too closely aligned with his every previous? There’s certainly a stark differentiation between that and this, just as there’s a marked division in the attitudes of those in attendance, what with there manifestly being more adhering to the love of getting fucked when set against they that fucking love AMOK. And as they depart, the rapture they receive ultimately seems excessive, given the lack of enthusiasm illustrated elsewhere. Though on this sort of evidence it’s difficult not to want for Yorke to unmake his bed, redress it and readdress accordingly. For Atoms for Peace is an ostensible collaboration positively amok with potential, and in time the verve will surely eventuate.