Radiohead’s “The King of Limbs” is a masterpiece of atmospheric imagery

Photo courtesy of onethirtybpm.com

Radiohead has mastered the bait-and-switch mode of recording albums.  It’s not always a conscious effort, they just seem to grow and progress at an alarming pace – though much of this is due to the fact that they sincerely want to grow as musicians and songwriters.

Their first album, “Pablo Honey,” was a searing, guitar-driven rock album. It was followed by “The Bends” and “OK Computer,” both of which were masterpieces, though each was consecutively less powered by guitars.

Then along came “Kid A” and “Amnesiac,” confusing some fans but shocking none; this was a band that was expected to change music (and had, with “OK Computer”). Both these albums were intricate, moody, and strikingly electronic-based. Drum machines and synthesizers were the norm, with one or two rocking tracks thrown into the mix.

“Hail to the Thief” and 2007’s “In Rainbows” were an amalgamation of everything Radiohead had accomplished up until then: powerful rockers with distorted guitars set alongside sprawling piano pieces, all with Thom Yorke’s ethereal voice soaring overhead.

Enter their latest release, “The King of Limbs,” a work of pure atmospheric imagery. The arrangements are sparse, and it does not lend itself to being a memorable listen the first time – I listened to the album three times before I got a grip on it.

But, for a Radiohead fan, that is hardly a surprise. There are very few guitars on the album, and not a single guitar solo. Most of the guitar work is simply strumming an acoustic once a measure, or simple melodic lines – there are no distorted power chords here.

And that’s just fine. Radiohead made an album equivalent to a painting: it’s short (only eight songs), consistent, and puts you exactly where they want you to be.

Breaking down the album track-by-track would be a pointless endeavor, much along the same lines as trying to describe a Picasso to someone.

I will say much of the album is driven by electronic drums and synthesizers, and has a thickness that will swallow you whole. “Lotus Flower,” the first single off the album has a simple bass/keyboard line that holds down the melody while strange electronic samples and noise float around in the background.  Thom Yorke sings in his trademark falsetto: “Slowly we unfurl as lotus flowers, and all I want is the moon upon a stick, dancing around the pit, just to see what it is.”

My favorite songs on the album are the last three, “Codex,” “Give Up the Ghost,” and “Separator.” They are slow and beautiful, full of rich melodies and soaring vocals.

“Give Up the Ghost” is one guitar and a simple bongo rhythm, but the chorus line of “Don’t haunt me” is slowly repeated and layered until the many vocal lines create a thick wall of sound.

This album is a return to the “Kid A” days, and only raises the bar for the band and the expectations of what’s to come.

Radiohead has once again proved that the only category they can be pigeonholed into is the one marked “Genius.”

A physical/digital bundle can be purchased for $48, which includes two 10-inch vinyl records, a CD and over 625 pieces of artwork. MP3 copies are $9 and WAVs are $14. A more traditional CD release is due March 28. To order, go to thekingoflimbs.com.

 

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