By Joseph Marshall
Radiohead are a group who’ve come under a great deal of flak over the years. In Britain at least, they are typically stigmatised as pretentious. Having deserted the grunge and alternative rock roots of their early work back in the late 90’s, they entered the new century with a much more experimental sound and inevitably, not everyone was up for a challenge. Further down the spiral, it’s 2011 and Thom Yorke and co have just released The King of Limbs, an album title which for me conjures up associations of a physically awkward adolescence, as well as the general disembodied weirdness we might all experience from time to time. A simple Google search shows that it is also the name of an oak tree in Swindon, possibly the original inspiration.
So what of the music itself – what seems to be inspiring that? Well on the opening track ‘Bloom’, Thom’s love for Warp Records (a predominantly electronic label which he was reportedly so impressed by on his first listen he bought their entire back catalogue) is more apparent than ever. The strange fax machine type noise which serves as a sort of twisted fanfare, as well as the busy nature of the drum beat, is all classic Warp. Also, the hymnal refrain ‘Don’t love me’ on the song ‘Give Up The Ghost’, suggests some form of musical communication between Radiohead and Grizzly Bear, one of the few rock acts signed to that label. The third track, ‘Little By Little’, is reminiscent of Portishead with its spaghetti western-style guitar intro and vulnerable lyrical content, ‘I’m such a tease and you’re such a flirt’.
‘Feral’, which appears somewhere in the middle of the album, acts as a sort of interlude and sounds like the kind of music you’d always suspected existed but never actually heard. There are no lyrics but rather twisted vocal stabs which sound like something off Burial’s seminal dubstep album Untrue. In the last twenty seconds or so, the beat thins out into a driving bass sound, much like when one dance track is mixed into the next during a DJ set. This is an exciting and frantic moment fully submerging the listener in the sonic experience of the record before giving perfect rise to ‘Lotus Flower’, a song that will be familiar to both fans and anyone who’s heard the latest single.
As for the band’s own progression, The King of Limbs is a sort of culmination or condensing of everything that went beforehand. The uniquely slow, bluegrass-like acoustic guitar of ‘Give Up The Ghost’ is reminiscent of everyone’s favourite, ‘Karma Police’. They also pick up on more recent musical themes such as sparse piano chords, which can be found on the song ‘Codex’ but also ‘Videotape’, the stand out song from their last record In Rainbows. It’s worth mentioning here that ‘Codex’ can be taken as a direct reference to a controversial organisation of the same name, who some claim are involved in the murky business of human population control. Perhaps the line ‘the water’s clear… and innocent’ is aimed directly at those involved, perhaps not. Either way, it wouldn’t be the first time Yorke has involved himself in politics – he’s known for campaigning against global warming and was recently spotted at the Copenhagen Climate Change summit lobbying for that very cause.
In terms of complexity and depth of listening, this is a multi-layered album with a good deal of replay value and should keep you entertained for a while yet. As for where it fits with regards to the rest of their output, Radioheads will not be let down. The experimental but cohesive sound of their previous works is present in full force, without sacrificing any of the highly emotive content listeners have come to expect. There are moments on this record which gave me goosebumps, and as with all good works of art, if you pay close attention you will find your own.
The major gripe in a lot of reviews has been the lack of tunes. Indeed you will find a lot more discordance and note bending then actual melody here. As for guitar parts, they are few and far between, so it’s unlikely The King of Limbs would appeal to a casual listener. Again, the label pretentious springs to mind. A quick look at the internet shows that this is exactly how this record is being treated. Already more than a few parodies of the video for the first single ‘Lotus Flower’ have surfaced on YouTube. Someone has even set Thom Yorke’s notoriously weird and wacky dance moves to the Beyoncé hit ‘Single Ladies’, to undeniable comic effect. Check it out for yourself if you don’t know what I mean! All things considered, although nothing massively unexpected takes place, this album is classic Radiohead and therefore well worth the purchase.
8 OUT OF 10