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Radiohead
Amnesiac
Capitol


Radiohead is a complicated band. It took nearly three years and two subsequent albums to fully appreciate just how complex they are. Just when you think you've figured out their schtick, they radically change and you realize they don't have one. They have assumed the role of deconstuctionists, a role that allows them to consistently re-invent themselves.

Watching Grant Gee's insightful documentary, Meeting People Is Easy, the impetus behind Kid A and Amnesiac becomes unyieldingly clear. Quite simply, Radiohead became bored with being Radiohead, and more importantly bored with conventional music. One pivotal scene in the documentary clearly illustrates this point. During show 34 in Philadelphia, during the verse of "Creep", Thom Yorke stands befuddled, with one hand folded across his chest and the other clutching a microphone extended into the audience; while the masses sing the words to a song that had long since lost its meaning.

The unexpected success of OK Computer afforded the band the ability to be a bit more pretentious with the media. Rather than subjecting themselves to more mind numbing and cumbersome interviews, as they had to endure for OK Computer, Radiohead developed a new tactic; they became more elusive. It's apparent that they became fatigued with the minutia that came along with being the world's most important band. I'm sure you've heard the stories of how they incorporated the practice of only speaking with select members of the press through their website; and when they did choose to interact, they only answered questions they deemed interesting. Make no mistake; Radiohead had achieved iconic status, a fact that they were keenly aware of. By being elusive to a fault, they further perpetuated the notion; they had become the world's most important band. Like it or not, the press was now forced to accept the paradigm shift that had taken place. The band now held all the cards and presumably enjoyed watching the pundit's jump through the hoops they had created. Being the world's most important band affords you that luxury.

Upon releasing Kid A, Radiohead thumbed their proverbial noses at anything or anyone remotely conventional. Kid A wasn't meant to be accessible. It was evidence of a band that had not only pushed the envelope, but one that ripped a hole through it. Rather than resting on their laurels and releasing OK Computer II, they eschewed conventional formulaic 4/4 guitar rock and followed their muse to create a stunning work of art, at the expense of alienating some fickle fans—myself included (see previous Kid A review). Like most innovative art, it took time and diligence (read: repeated listenings, with headphones) to fully appreciate it for what it was, a sonic masterpiece.

On Amnesiac, you'll find a band that has created a vivid soundscape that takes you to the outer reaches of their collective imaginations and leaves you there, with a feeling of utter desolation. The dirge like atmosphere of Amnesiac makes OK Computer seem like a downright happy record by comparison. While this record is sonically more cohesive than Kid A, at the same time it's far less expansive and experimental. However, by no means is Amnesiac a simple pop record—I mean this is Radiohead we're talking about; and in true Radiohead fashion, just as you'd become accustomed to the Coltrane-esque improvisational style of Kid A, they revert back to the Radiohead we remember—well, almost anyway.

Listening to Kid A and Amnesiac in succession, I realize they've created a masterful rock opera. Only they've created it not so much with words as they have with the music, the music itself tells a story. Separately, the records sound somewhat disjointed, but when you listen to them together—as I think was intended—they make total sense. I've constructed the following allegory to help you understand what I mean.

From the opening lines of Kid A, you get the sensation of crashing into the icy waters of the Atlantic in a 747. You experience utter shock at first, but once your body grows accustomed to the frigid waters, you're no longer cognizant of your fate, as you float helpless in utter darkness. Then, just as you begin to experience sensory deprivation, and hypothermia threatens to overcome you, Amnesiac kicks in. It serves as an auditory hallucination as you begin to drift in and out of consciousness; replaying fragmented movie stills of your life as you wait to expire, some familiar, and some from the aforementioned crash.

"Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box" opens with what sounds like someone walking outside your window, dragging a metal pipe across fence posts; getting louder and more distinct as they approach. The song then gives way to a lucid synthetic beat and keyboard tones that alternate between a Jan Hamer (think Axel F) like tone and sounds similar to what you'd hear from the children's game Simon. The melodic focal point of the song is centered around Thom Yorke singing the words, "After years of waiting, nothing came. / As your life flashed before your eyes, you realize...I'm a reasonable man. Get off my case."

The vocal phrasing and rhythm of "Pyramid Song," is somewhat reminiscent of OK Computer's "Climbing The Walls", only substitute a piano as the primary instrument in lieu of guitars. The minimalistic piano musings are closer to that of "Rabbit In Your Headlights," the song Yorke collaborated on with UNKLE. An ethreal vibe is created with blending of Yorke's ever-present falsetto and some luminous string orchestration. For added effect, a guitar squealch that sounds like the sound of a modem trying to connect, is subtly added to the mix and swells and descends in tandem with the strings.

Electronica's influence is definitely felt on "Pull/Pulk Revolving Doors" which is centered around a rasping, bottom-end heavy, stop/start rhythm with Yorke's digitized, Stephen Hawking's, effected voice weaving in and out, ala Kid A's "Everything In It's Right Place."

"You and Whose Army" is probably one of the darker tracks on the record. It brings to mind the soliloquy of Pink Floyd's quieter moments on The Wall. It starts with a heavy sigh and then Yorke singing the words, "Come on, you think you drive me crazy/come on, you and whose army? / you and your cronies.../ come on, holy Roman empire / come on, if you think you can take us...you forget so easy..." over a subduded, jazzy Bucky Pizzerelli like guitar line. I can almost envision the protagonist of the allegory I've constructed, laying placid in the water in an almost drunken state, replaying footage of a war, (ala Roger Waters in The Wall), realizing the frailty of it all in the grand scheme of things.

"I Might Be Wrong" is anchored by a gritty guitar line and a bulky programmed beat. In what would easily be a weak spot on any other Radiohead record, "I Might Be Wrong" sharply contrasts the otherwise keyboard intensive Amnesiac.

"Knives Out" is easily the strongest track on the record. It sounds very reminiscent of OK Computer / Bends-era Radiohead, with a shimmery, un-effected arpeggiated guitar line. When Yorke sings, "I want you to know he's not coming back/ look into my eyes, I'm not coming back." I picture the protagonist in the allegory singing out the words of a posthumous letter to his love ones, left to pick up the pieces after his demise. Exhorting them to come to terms with the fact that he's not coming back—ever. Or as Yorke explained in an interview previously, it could be a song about cannibalism.

"The Morning Bell Amnesiac" is a re-working of a track by the same name from Kid A. The melody is identical to the original with only the arrangement getting a facelift. This treatment is more convoluted than its predecessor, with less clarity. Both versions are equally as haunting.

A thick, sensuous, bass line and subtle woodwind arrangement form the nerve center of "Dollars and Cents." The song slowly swells and creates dynamic tension, before the driving bassline suddenly drops out leaving just random, distant cymbal clangs and a muted guitar to fade out.

"Hunting Bears" is a minimalistic instrumental, with only a murmur of a single guitar riff played against a bed of barely audible keyboard buzz. If you're following this allegory, it's now that the protagonist begins to lose consciousness completely. It perfectly lays the foundation for the climax of "Like Spinning Plates" in which he finally reaches the end of his mortality. "Like Spinning Plates" starts off with brisk organ tones that sound as if they are being played in reverse. Combined with Yorke's shivery vocals, which also sound like they are being played backwards, conjure up an image of lungs filling up with water and ultimately collapsing. Fade to Black...

For the last scene of this movie in my head, I picture a shot of a vast blue ocean with a single water logged shell of a human, floating in a watery grave. "Life In A Glass House" plays in the background as the camera zooms out and the credits begin to roll. "Life In A Glass House" serves as an amazing crescendo to the torturous drama that has unfolded before us. The arrangement on this track calls to mind some of the lush orchestration of Elvis Costello's Spike, if only because of Humprey Lyttleton's inspired trumpet performance and some nimble clarinet playing. In addition to being a fitting closer to this epic record, it's definitely the standout track on Amnesiac.

The tracks on Amnesiac tell the story of the desperate fight to stay alive juxtaposed with the hopeless inevitability of death—or at least that's what I think of when I listen to it. This may not have even been remotely Radiohead's intent when they made this music, however, the point is they create compelling music that is thought provoking and lets you escape. In effect they've created the soundtrack for the movie in your head. I'm sure this record will only get better with time—remember, I hated Kid A at first.

Logic would suggest that Amnesiac would have been better suited as a predecessor of Kid A rather than a follow-up. Had this record been released prior to Kid A, the evolution probably would not have seemed so drastic. As usual, logic is wrong.

It's no coincidence that the only comparisons that hold any weight are comparisons to Radiohead's previous efforts. It's nebulous to even begin to compare Radiohead to any of their contemporaries (the exception: The Flaming Lips). At one point comparisons probably made total sense (Pablo Honey / Bends era Radiohead). However, they are apropos of nothing now. If anything, they have more in common with an artist like John Coltrane, who was also criticized for drastically altering his style over the course of his career. His true genius was never truly realized until long after his death. I'm confident Radiohead will leave behind a similar legacy.

-- Dave Herrera

Track Listing:

  1. Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box
  2. Pyramid Song
  3. Pull/pulk Revolving Doors
  4. You And Whose Army
  5. I Might Be Wrong
  6. Knives Out
  7. The Morning Bell Amnesiac
  8. Dollars And Cents
  9. Hunting Bears
  10. Like Spinning Plates
  11. Life In A Glass House (featuring Humprey Lyttleton)

Related Links:

Red Rocks Concert Review
Amnesiac Album Review
Kid A Album Review

 


Mike Doughty



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