Since leaving the major label world, Radiohead have – not unhappily – slipped from the public eye. Leaving aside the media storm surrounding the revolutionary Pay What You Like release of 2007’s In Rainbows, a succession of more side projects than full band albums might have suggested that the quintet was close to fragmenting. In that light, it’s a welcome treat that last week’s hastily unveiled eighth studio album, The King of Limbs, is their most exciting since their first electronic renaissance.
The most notable of those side projects, Thom Yorke’s album The Eraser, exhibited the frontman’s growing passion with choppy laptop-contained electronica. Despite that album’s flaws (occasionally sterile production and a lack of compositional colour held it back), its basic style enjoys more influence over the new Radiohead album than does the more recent In Rainbows, the face of which is largely washed away.
Yorke’s solo work can be felt most potently in the earlier stages, especially on old acoustic track ‘Morning Mr Magpie’, freshly given the ‘Clock’ treatment of busy guitar loops and beats. Even if his glitchy vision remains at the core of many of the tracks, the rest of the band add depth his solo effort rarely approached, squaring his creative heart with the dynamics of a 5-piece live band to brilliant effect.
The crackling and bleeping of minimalist opener ‘Bloom’ are just small elements of a sophisticated arrangement, where Phil Selway’s live drums, Colin Greenwood’s bass, and orchestral parts (presumably by Jonny Greenwood) broaden the sonic palette. This situation is characteristic of the album: Yorke’s simple songwriting provides most songs with an initial framework, but the nuances of the final tracks seem to be hammered out later, during studio sessions which – for better or worse – feel not to have been as tortuous as the traditional Radiohead recording period. The doubling of electronic beats, untuned bleeps and synth parts by live instruments adds a humanity that The Eraser sometimes lacked, and ensures that organic depth edges out ostensibly mechanistic laptop use as the real heart of the album.
There’s more to The King of Limbs than references to the band’s previous work, and the diversity of various members’ solo work (folk, electronic and avant-garde classical music in recent years) hints at a breadth of stylistic influence. Making the most impact seems to be the Hyperdub label; just as Yorke’s fascination with Warp Records enveloped the creative processes around Kid A and Amnesiac, Hyperdub seems to have forged a relation here. Its typical looped beats, heavily weighted bass and sampling are most blatantly exhibited on central instrumental ‘Feral’, whose twitchy beats and pile-up of samples and synth bass owe as much to dubstep and its derivatives as they do to Radiohead’s own clattering ‘Pulk/Pull’ blueprint.
It commands respect, and listeners’ responses to this track (and perhaps the development of dubstep in general) are likely to inform their feelings about the album as a whole, most of which embodies the aesthetic to a significant extent. Either side of ‘Feral’, ‘Little By Little’ and ‘Lotus Flower’ – the most likely singles in a world where Radiohead still released singles – are built more on rhythmic than melodic foundations, which beg for the bass to be turned right up. Radiohead’s appropriation of the style is a masterful modernisation of their sound, making for an album which seems to be “of its time” in the same way that Kid A turned out to be of its own.
After the opening five track onslaught, ‘Codex’ and ‘Give up the Ghost’ act as a welcome, contrasting pair of (relatively) acoustic palate cleansers. The latter is no less minimalist than the majority, but its repetitions are limited to vocal loops and guitar, which ebb and flow relaxingly, rather than pummel the listener into line with the beat. The effects don’t keep out of the mix entirely, though; a birdsong segue between the tracks gently unfurls from a mist of static effects, before a quietly thudding bass beat introduces Yorke’s layered vocals. As wing-flapping effects cut away and the drums return for refreshing closer ‘Separator’, it dawns that nothing’s purely acoustic here.
The album’s minimalist content, especially its opening and closing tracks, and ‘Feral’, could initially seem to map directly onto that of many an Amnesiac b side, but on further examination its relative subtleties surface – The King of Limbs as an altogether greater work than some b sides compilation. It might not have the immediacy of In Rainbows or the diversity of Hail to the Thief, but as an album, its focus, progression and pristine arrangements combine to make it Radiohead’s strongest effort since Amnesiac.