Thursday, March 10, 2011

King of Limbs highlights Radiohead's artistic side

Genre: Electronic Rock
Running Time: 38:08

Following the release of Hail to the Thief in 2003, Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke famously prognosticated that the band would take an extended hiatus, then reemerge totally unrecognizable.

Nearly eight years have passed since then, and Yorke's prediction has been mostly accurate.  

In Rainbows represented a sonic step away from the Kid A/Amnesiac/Hail to the Thief arc. For those hoping for a return to those days, don't expect to be obliged by King of Limbs. I've heard some people compare this album to their Kid A days, but I don't see that.

My initial instinct is to say that King of Limbs bears some similarity to In Rainbows; the band has managed to  blend the sound of their instruments so well with the electronic elements of their music that it's tough to discern what's a live instrument and what's electronic.

In Rainbows was a pensive, emotional record, but that wouldn't be an accurate way to describe its successor. If I had to describe King of Limbs in a word, it would be hypnotic. It's not necessarily psychedelic, but it contains some hints of that.

I've heard comparisons to Animal Collective and I don't think that's really accurate but I can see it a little bit.With The King of Limbs, Radiohead has once again made something that sounds totally different from what they've done previously but it holds its own when stacked up against their back catalog.

One of the most striking aspects most Radiohead records is how they're able to set the mood for an album almost instantly after you hit play. Within the first 10 seconds of the opening track, expectations are forged or crushed. Here, you get Bloom, which sets the mood with its slightly psychedelic electronic intro.

But for a band that's well known for having stellar album openers, I can't help but feel that Bloom falls a bit short of the mark. Yorke's vocal sounds a bit flat, almost like he's just going through the motions. I think that most listeners will find Bloom to be one of the more abstract and experimental tracks to be found on King of Limbs.

Some of the effects sound like they could have been pulled right off Sufjan Stevens' Age of Adz album. Not a bad track, but it took some time to grow on me.

Bloom segues perfectly into Good Morning Mr. Magpie, and if you're not paying attention it may sound exactly like the the song before it. The vocals are still a little flat, but the instrumentation is more interesting than in Bloom.

That leads into Little By Little, the first track on the album that really grabbed me from the get-go. The guitar work provides something rarely heard in a Radiohead song - a real sense of groove. That earns it bunches of brownie points in my book. And it sounds as though Yorke has finally had his coffee, as he comes alive on the first time on this album to show great range and emotion in his voice.

Feral is a bit unique. There are no actually articulated lyrics, just formless, misshapen moans that drift through the eerie ethereal fog that is the backing music. It's powered by an ominous buzzing bassline and other creepy electronic effects. This song makes me feel like there's something stalking me in the shadows, but I don't quite know what it is.

Louts Flower is easily my favorite off King of Limbs. The drums and bass work together perfectly to create a serene and enlightened listening experience. Yorke also takes the opportunity to show off the depth and dynamism of his range. Lotus Flower is entrancing, captivating and magnificent.

From this point the pace of the album begins to seriously mellow out and slow down the pace. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but I personally lose a little bit of interest at this point.

Codex is the token non-experimental song, as it features just Yorke's vocal and a piano. It's nice, reminds me a little of Motion Picture Soundtrack, but not as emotional or as brilliant.

Give up the Ghost presents an interesting proposition. Radiohead has been a band often known putting a lot of emotion in their work, but that doesn't really show so much on this album until you get to this track. It's a heartfelt emotional ballad in which Yorke begs for the pain to stop.

The effects applied to the backing vocals sound similar to the distortion used on the vocals for You and Whose Army from the Amnesiac album. Not my favorite song on the disc, but one I've grown to appreciate.

All that's left after that is Separator, which I'm not really a big fan of. Most Radiohead closers are usually pretty emotional pieces but this one is not so much. It's just rather bland, and the looping drum pattern is just annoying.

So once again Radiohead has managed to make a solid record and do something different from their previous works, though I can't help but mentally group it in the same general family with In Rainbows. It may not ever be a serious contender for the title of best Radiohead album, and may even come across as slightly obtuse at certain points.

But give it time. It took a little while to grow on me, but I can now safely say it's moving up the ranks of my favorite Radiohead LPs.

Score: 80/100

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