In the Mood for Mood
Over a decade after Kid A obliterated any hoary notions of Radiohead as guitar-rockers, The King of Limbs shouldn't be shocking to anyone. There's barely a guitar in earshot; or, at least, not one played in any kind of rock'n'roll fashion. Which, coming on the heels of 2007's In Rainbows —effectively Radiohead's most conservative record since 1995's The Bends— has made it seem as if Radiohead are, once more, out to shake off their baggage.
At just eight songs and 37 minutes long, The King of Limbs has a sense of economy that bands of Radiohead's stature rarely operate with. There's little bombast, grandeur, or even ambition loaded into the band's eighth LP. It is, instead, an album content to explore mood and texture; less about big hooks than sonic environments.
Some songs are built from very few parts; most make many parts merely sound like very few. The effect is an album whose compositional canvases seem simplistic on first glance, but reveal rich details on further inspection; like the cracks, bubbles, and scratches that greet those peering close at minimalist paintings.
These tendencies come to the fore on The King of Limbs' Side B. "Codex," a slow-motion "Pyramid Song," all lamenting piano chords, barely dabbles with half-breathed woodwinds and intermittent swipes of strings; "Give up the Ghost" is built largely from Thom Yorke's multi-layered, effects-triggered voice, with pianissimo guitars strums, flickers of digital distress, and chirping birds beneath; and "Separator" is a soul song, all falsetto voice and finger-plucked bass, that at times seems impossibly skeletal, little more than a rickety drum-part and a vocal line.
Creeping, Crawling, Spidery Little Rhythms
Where Side B's compositional space makes for mood-pieces, all atmospheric effects and instrumental quietude, the opening side is a highly-rhythmic suite of songs; all fidgety, insectile rhythms, with programmed drums and Phil Selway's tense playing skittering, scratching, and clattering forward. But as much as the meters march —scramble, more like— forward, the overall impression, in terms of direction, is of wheels spinning, and mud sticking: as if the band are lost in a haunted wood they can't escape from.
The King of Limbs takes it title from thousand-year-old oak tree in England's Savernake Forest. Its suitably-disturbing artwork is indebted to woodland fairy-tales. And that sense of shadowy, folkloric mystery feels imprinted on the material; even when, with somewhat of a paradox, "Morning Mr. Magpie" flickers along with spindly krautrock repetition.
"Feral" is even busier, with its barrage of truncated digital clicks —a barrage of carefully-edited spurts of no natural attack/decay— sounding almost like a hissing sprinkler, spurting out of the speaker in a thousand tiny droplets; the song never finding a form, featuring no words, and no hooks. At just three minutes long, it's almost incidental; but, in many ways, its a defining song on The King of Limbs; capturing the tone, the mode, and the arrangements that persist across the LP.
In this stripped-down, intensely-digital sound-realm, Kid A seems a likely ally; but the two don't really sit together. Kid A was a work of pissed-off radicalism, a tearing down of walls and borders, a very fracturing of the band's rockist foundations. The King of Limbs sounds, if anything, to be spirits afloat in this wreckage; if not the ants crawling over the ruins.
After the snarling sloganeering of 2003's Hail to the Thief and the loud, bold, sometimes bludgeoning straightness of In Rainbows, the album has an airy feeling; light-headed, woozy, elusive, almost elfin, and essentially sexless. Released unto the world less than a week after its existence was announced, The King of Limbs was thrown at listeners' feet, a bundle of sound-files, begging them to make sense of it.
With the familiar rapidity of the digital realm, many a critical proclamation was instantly leapt to; be it denouncement or praise. But the very nature of the record suggests that its true tenor will be revealed over time.
Record Label: XL
Release Date: March 25, 2011