Radiohead’s debut ‘Pablo Honey’ threw the band into the public consciousness thanks to hit single ‘Creep’ (a track that’s long since worn out it’s welcome thanks to many cover versions), but overall, the album was patchy. When their second album ‘The Bends’ was released in 1995, the sense of growth was obvious. Every song featured was incredibly strong and Thom Yorke’s song writing showed an increasing maturity. Its 1997 follow-up ‘OK Computer’ was a brave release, which resenbled little of the band from previously, encompassing a far more cinematic style, bringing elements of progressive rock into the mix. This was most notable during the closing moments of ‘Exit Music For a Film’, which brazenly ripped off paid homage to Pink Floyd’s ‘Saucerful of Secrets’ (particularly the version from Floyd’s ‘Live at Pompeii’ movie’). Here was a band three albums into their career, and they were musically already a world away from their debut. [At this point, while NME were still praising Radiohead for being the greatest alternative rock band in the world, it was more obvious that this was the work of a band who’d spent their teenage years soaking up influence from 70s prog bands.]
They returned a couple of years later with ‘Kid A’, an album which seemed to polarise fans. Radiohead’s experimentation pushed itself to new levels over the course of the albums that followed. Some embraced the experimental turn their work had taken, while some were turned off, yet rather surprisingly, the band retained a huge fan base – and still appeared to be winning new converts.
Their eighth studio album arrived ahead of the planned release date as a downloadable release, on the 18th February 2011, to what appeared to be unanimous praise, though at times, it’s hard to work out why. For the first five of the eight featured numbers, Radiohead present a collection of soundscapes, beats and loops – and very little in the way of real songs.
A few bars into the opening number ‘Bloom’, it becomes obvious that ‘The King of Limbs’ can be another wilfully difficult release. Busy drum loops relentlessly drive what is essentially an electronic piece, almost lacking any tune. The drum loops are punctuated by an electronic parping noise until the arrival of Tom Yorke’s vocal line. He wails sporadically, his voice almost used as extra instrumentation, as opposed to singing in the conventional sense. The bass sound which creeps in now and again sounds rather good through a pair of 1970s speakers, but there’s not much to enjoy here. Imagine a beefed up electronica version of Tim Buckley’s ‘Starsailor’ but without any of the talent and you’d have a fair idea of what to expect. Striking, it may be, but for most people looking for a tune, its abstract nature probably won’t inspire further listening.
‘Morning Mr Magpie’ is a little softer on the ears, with the drum loop reduced to a rather pleasing hi-hat sound, while the rhythm guitar part shows a minimalistic brilliance with its staccato patterns. Colin Greenwood’s bass pattern has a danceable quality in places, helping to give the mechanical feel of the number some warmth. Even Yorke’s performance hints at Radiohead of old – breathy and passionate (while still an acquired taste). If you’re still looking for an actual song with an actual hook though, you may as well forget it. ‘Little By Little’ continues in a softer mood, but here, Yorke’s voice moves from breathy and passionate, into realms of tuneless and whiny – almost breaking completely in places. The guitar work adopts an enjoyable soft twang, but that’s about the only enjoyable element here. After a few minutes, the sounds of the drum loop and Yorke’s vocal become nothing more than an irritation.
‘Feral’ takes the drum sounds into darker territory, as Phil Selway offers a pattern which resembles another dance loop, over which there’s an odd sounding keyboard punctuating the rhythms. During the second half of the track, there’s a bass sound with a real presence which occasionally hints at 90s ambient dance. But despite a couple of good elements, this number doesn’t particularly work as a whole. Selway’s busy drum rhythms are bothered throughout by keyboard sounds and Thom Yorke, whose vocal drifts in and out, eventually becoming an irksome noise. The bass sound makes a return for ‘Lotus Flower’, which in places, has a pleasing tune – again very much driven by the rhythm section. Greenwood’s playing is laid back – almost sounding like it could have been a bass sample – and even the electronic and keyboard parts of the number present themselves in an unthreatening manner. Such a pity that Yorke has chosen to sing in falsetto throughout – without that, it could have possibly been worth listening to.
The last three numbers present a surprising turnaround of fortunes. In a nod to the past, ‘Give Up The Ghost’ is a sparse haunting number led by acoustic guitar. With minimal percussion and a few electric guitars sounding a little like theramins, Yorke takes place front and centre, delivering a ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ style lament. As a Radiohead fan of old, I very much welcome the presence of such an accessible number (one which could have easily been an ‘OK Computer b-side). As the track pulls to a close, Colin Greenwood’s bass rumbles in a lead fashion and then everything fades out (no pun intended) leaving me wanting more. Similarly, the gentleness of ‘Codex’ has more in common with Radiohead’s history than most of ‘The King of Limbs’. A simple, yet cinematic piano line provides the basis for a heartfelt vocal; Yorke in strong voice (perhaps his strongest this time around). The voice and pinao are joined in places by a dark horn sound and a few strings, to create something almost beautiful. It’s almost as if ‘Codex’ and ‘Give Up The Ghost’ are a reward for old Radiohead fans who haven’t given up on the album by this point.
Closing the album, the Massive Attack/Zero 7 inspired ‘Separator’ utilises yet another great drum part from Selway, accompanied by one of Greenwood’s more interesting bass riffs. It’s busy, again with a slight hint of dance, this time with a little funk thrown in for good measure. Midway, a very clean-toned guitar adds an almost sunny accompaniment – and from that point, the track builds to it’s climax. Yorke’s vocals are reverbed and could, once again, be best described as additional music, since it’s very hard to pick out any of the lyrics (aside from a brief refrain of ‘wake me up’ which creeps in at the end). Arguably one of the best tunes ‘The King of Limbs’ has to offer, it makes me wish the disc hadn’t stopped there (despite disliking most of what came previously). How different the album may have been, if only Radiohead could have tapped into their trip-hop qualities earlier…
While it’s necessary to appreciate bands move on and experiment (and in some cases change their sound almost completely), it’s almost remarkable how Radiohead have managed to retain such a huge following by releasing such challenging music as they have from 1997 onward. Over the years, there have been other artists performing music with equally interesting results which have barely had a look in by comparison. ‘The King of Limbs’ as a whole may be more experimental than anything Radiohead have attempted before, but it’s first half is almost devoid of songs. A couple of numbers are even devoid of tunes. Thankfully, the second half is more accessible, but still doesn’t grab the listener in the same way the band’s best was once easily capable. They won’t care, of course. Those who enjoy Radiohead’s wanton electronic experiements will praise this album to the hilt – as for the older fans…at least ‘The Bends’ can thankfully be revisited time and again without it’s brilliance ever waning.