Friday, 25 February 2011

Album review: The King of Limbs - Radiohead

There are a handful of bands that define their generation – bridging the gap between underground credibility and mainstream acceptance. The Beatles managed it in the 1960’s, Floyd in the 70’s, U2 in the 80’s and Nirvana briefly in the 90’s. So who are today’s standard bearers? In my opinion there is only one real contender – Radiohead.

The Oxford quintet are undoubtedly the most important band in the world right now – selling out stadiums wherever they play, loved by critics and yet able to experiment with jazz rhythms and electronic instrumentation without fear of how their huge fan-base will react. They’ve been phenomenally consistent throughout a twenty year career. Firstly they redefined guitar rock at the tail end of britpop with The Bends and then went on to make what is regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time in OK Computer. They then completely re-invented themselves with the lush electronica of Kid A and Amnesiac before metamorphosing again to produce the (admittedly a bit patchy) Hail to the Thief and the triumphant record-industry breaking In Rainbows. Along the way they’ve played some of the finest ever festival sets (greatest ever Glastonbury performance?) and been one of the few musical acts to take a political stance on the key issues of our time.

Its fair to say then that there was some excitement last week when the band announced that they would release an album the following Saturday. The first point of interest about King of Limbs was the formats it has been released in. Fans had the option of MP3, WAVV or a deluxe vinyl edition. It is increasingly clear to the band that the CD format is obsolete (although there will be a CD release of the album further down the line). Those who simply want the music go digital while those who want to collect a format increasingly prefer the more tactile vinyl.

There had been rumours of recording sessions taking place for some time but no-one was quite sure when Radiohead’s eighth album would drop. In this age of leaks left, right and centre they’ve once again managed to release material on their own terms at a time of their own asking.

So, what’s the music like? Well, the influences, according to the band themselves include the work of Jamie XX and beats master Ramadanman although an album comprising of bass-driven electronica was always fairly unlikely. To be honest, at first listen, its a little underwhelming but this is often the case with their releases. The band’s sound is increasingly subtle and the hooks and melodies take a while to get under the skin.

Opening track Bloom starts with classical piano and juddering drums before giving way to what could only be described as a jazz bass line and Thom’s vocal. The time signature, in keeping with their last album is also reminiscent of jazz or even african music. As with In Rainbows things really kick off on the second track. 'You’ve got some nerve coming stole it all, give it back’ sneers Thom on Morning Mr Magpie over an upbeat, Neu-esque guitar sound. The song breaks nicely about halfway through and as with many tracks on the album the bass comes to the fore. It goes without saying that the playing is excellent throughout with each member (with the possible exception of Johnny Greenwood) being given ample opportunity to showcase their talents but the rhythm section in particular are able to show what they can do and don’t disappoint.

The album gathers pace from hereon in. Little by little is perhaps the only track here that wouldn’t be out of place on OK Computer. It starts with some John Barry style flourishes and culminates with some backward masking. Feral meanwhile is more electronic sounding. Again heavy drums and a rolling bass feature heavily. This is probably the track that best reflects the influence of Flying Lotus and other electronic pioneers. By now the album is flying by as the sheer number of ideas is quite dizzying and only when listened to on repeat do they fully sink in.

It’s no surprise that Lotus Flower was chosen as the first track to promote the album via an online video (Radiohead don’t seem to do anything as conventional as actually release singles anymore). It’s the catchiest track on offer and features a great vocal performance from Thom. The subject matter vaguely sexual but somehow slightly creepy.

The album then switches a gear for its conclusion. Codex is essentially a piano ballad but is off-set with an ecstasy tinged vocal and jazz piano arpeggios to prevent it becoming too syrupy. Give up the ghost continues the mood. It’s very melancholy, perhaps reminiscent of Pyramid Song from Amnesiac and you can almost picture hugging cupples in woolly jumpers hugging up to each other on the hill of the pyramid stage as Thom wails into the night. The song ends with him singing rounds with sampled versions of his own voice – it’s spooky and quite lovely.

Final track Separator again uses bass rather than guitar to build its melody, just as you think you’ve got to grips with it what sounds like a steel guitar comes into the mix followed by a synthesized choir which lifts us towards the light. It’s a fitting end to an intriguing record, subtle but joyful. The whole album clocks in at under 40 minutes which feels a bit short but certainly leaves the listener wanting more.

The fundamental problem with Radiohead is that we’ve come to take them for granted. This is a band that makes truly beautiful music entirely on their own terms, the complete antithesis of the majority of today’s acts. This isn’t their best work but it bears comparison with it and those who are prepared to persevere with repeated listens will be rewarded. Radiohead continue to intrigue and inspire. We should all be grateful.

No comments:

Post a Comment