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 fansmyself 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 recordI 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 rememberwell,
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 togetheras
I think was intendedthey 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
"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
"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 backever. 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 deathor 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
timeremember, 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
- Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box
- Pyramid Song
- Pull/pulk Revolving Doors
- You And Whose Army
- I Might Be Wrong
- Knives Out
- The Morning Bell Amnesiac
- Dollars And Cents
- Hunting Bears
- Like Spinning Plates
- Life In A Glass House (featuring Humprey Lyttleton)
Rocks Concert Review
Kid A Album Review
e-mail the editor
e-mail it to a friend!