Review and Cover: Radiohead's ethereal discontent from lunar heights / by Sam Abelow

When I was 15, my bandmate introduced me to Radiohead. All at once came classics like The Bends and OK Computer, which have proved to be lasting contributions to the Rock Genre. That is, with covers of “Creep,” by your college buddies and even better by the legendary Prince. Or, with video games like Guitar Hero distilling Thom Yorke’s (lead singer-songwriter of Radiohead) alternative songs to masses.

For me, as an adolescent musician, it was the more avant-garde, experimental projects like Kid A and Amnesiac, which featured impeccable use of synthesizers and electronic drums, at a time when digital recording was still in its infancy.

The bands ability to be inventive musically and still remain intelligible and emotive, is untouched. There is no contemporary artist — Coldplay or Arcade Fire — that compare to the continue evolution and transformation that Radiohead have achieved.

Individual Artistry: Rare in These Days

2007’s “In Rainbows” was the pinnacle of their artistry and a codification of their most authentic sound. It seemed that on that album they were able to combine and refine all of the techniques and explorations made on the previous albums, since their debut in early 90s.

Thankfully, they’ve remained true to a palette of colors and materials, which, in decades of development, are so unmistakably theirs.

And this group must be measured in decades. With intervals of four and five years between albums, a Radiohead release it like the Olympics at this point: well worth the wait, for the level of performance.

One For The History Books...

This many years it, the old moniker “Radiohead” is like an old tattoo that Thom and his bandmates must force themselves to accept, despite its irrelevancy to their current psyche.

 And their present outlook first displays itself on the cover: “A Moon Shaped Pool,” 2016; sleek, abstract, yet crisp, understated, elegant and modern.

From the opening song, “Burn The Witch” which was also released as a single (with a childish, horrifying stop-motion music video), it is clear that this band is in a planet all of their own.

A full orchestra blips and crescendos, along with punchy, yet minimalistic electronic drums (nothing akin to the over-the-top drums on most contemporary records). Thom Yorke’s vocals swoon and crackle, before soaring into his falsetto.

Has he been reading history books which document the superstitious burning of witches? Is he comparing this absurd and naive mass-mind to today’s social trends? Maybe so.

Whatever the narrative, the music itself is the focus. And as much as this album may be laden with vague social commentary, it is the band’s recording techniques and production qualities that are truly revolutionary.

The instruments are dry, raw and open. This opposes people even in their own genre: the current wave of indie artists obsessed with massive reverb and washed out guitars (Cullen Omari, or Night Moves). And it stands at a great lunar distance from the hard-hitting, chimey productions of say Taylor Swift or Sam Smith.

Not to mention, it’s distance from a trap superstar like Future, or the romantic-rapper Drake. To me, Thom Yorke’s clear discontent, melancholy and ominous anxiety are more reflection of the moaner human condition than any of the glamorous pop stars, or LSD-apathetic indie rockers.

I decided to re-imagine the song a bit, with a slightly more "rock," or "acoustic" vibe. That is, opposed to Radiohead's version which featured and orchestra and drums machine.

Somber Sounds, Sonic Swoon

It seems that music is headed more towards integrating the visual aspect. Idols like Beyonce have albums that seem to skimp on the music and compensate with aesthetics. On the other hand, Radiohead’s LP shines brilliantly, as a cinematic and compelling work, despite it’s lack startling images.

The second track, “Daydreaming,” features a music video, which aimlessly follows Yorke as he ambles in a state of inception, from one laundry mat, modest house and finally snowy mountain landscape.

His somber lyrics and vocals seem to reflect the overwhelming dichotomies of today’s existence. He begs us to slow down — to put down the phone, the double-tasking — to disconnect from the mass-mind. Here, the album reveals itself to be slow and nebulous. The beauty of Yorke’s acoustic piano contrasts sharply with dystopian lyrics . The pairing seem to read of a tension between the beauty which is redemptive and the atrocities that “are beyond you and me.”

And it is this malaise of opposites that the music portrays so effectively, with the use of strings and effects. This, all accomplished by Johnny Greenwood — originally the “lead guitar” player of Radiohead, who’s abilities surpass such a label.

Thom Yorke at an upright piano, with a single Neumann microphone for vocals. Minimalistic capturing of his talent is brilliant.

Nobody is Even Near Their Planetary System

Greenwood's acclaim as a composer, as was famously featured in the film “There Will Be Blood,” becomes a prominent element in the arrangement of these most recent songs.

Well, it’s interesting that seven out of the eleven songs on this album, have been heard previously either live, on demos, bootlegs or otherwise. The last song "True Love Waits" was first heard in 1993.

Still, by reworking earlier material, the band seems as mature as ever. Sections of songs often feature a simple accompaniment of crisp, yet underwhelming drums, vintage strumming and a little keyboard or ambient effects. This is so refreshing in a market saturated with 100+ tracks per song.

Radiohead seems to be competing with nobody in the Billboard planetary system. On “Desert Island Dark,” they seem to draw influence from the polyrhythms of world musicians like Ali Farka Touré, or folk legends like Richie Havens and Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Ascending to Folk Heights

 Born of a light. Born of a light; The wind rushing round my open heart. An open ravine. With my spirit white”

This lyric reminds me of Yorke’s spiritualism on Kid A, but also that of hippy folk rockers. Luckily, this theme is expanded by artists like Jonathan Wilson, on his album “Gentle Spirit.”

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Yorke?

Also similar to Wilson, is the obsession with the warm analog textures. Even when “A Moon Shaped Pool” bends into the vibrant synthesizers, it remains understated and rich with vintage flavors.

In the second half of the album, they seem to divert into different regions of which I don’t always particularly like. I wish the folky-vibe would be explored more conclusively. A song like “Numbers,” is new territory, which seems futile and intriguing.

 And the hints of latin vibe on “Present Tense” recall the same influences that Paul Simon, or again Crosby, Stills and Nash would integrate.

 So, much like Beck’s incredibly slow, yet incredibly tasteful and evocative masterpiece “Morning Phase,” this recent Radiohead release is a relaxing and intriguing journey. 

Ethereal Discontent

What perfect albums like “In Rainbows” had, even in the slow songs, is not as evident here in some parts. “A Moon Shaped Pool” offers with the same compelling sonic bliss and nuanced complexity, pure musicianship and innovative arrangement. But, it sometimes lacks a clear, compelling statement to be memorable. In all its etheric discontent, it lacks bodily vivacity and directness

Grade/Rating: 8.5

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