Radiohead - The King of Limbs
Record Label: self-released
Release Date: February 18, 2011
Seemingly out of nowhere, Radiohead released their new album, The King of Limbs. The reclusive group picked a strange time to release the album—two days before the 2011 Grammy Awards, and a day earlier than the Saturday release they had announced the previous Monday. Maybe it was a distraction; a sabotage of sorts, after being snubbed for Album of the Year in 2008, losing to the admittedly excellent Raising Sand.
In any case, the surprise release has caused quite a stir, and some critics have viewed the stunt as the band’s hope of redeeming a mediocre and overly pretentious album. Radiohead? Pretentious? That should come as no surprise, even after the more accessible, song-driven In Rainbows. But the claims of mediocrity or “run of the mill Radiohead” are debatable. The King of Limbs does not appear to be designed as just another album, and its music doesn’t point to that end either. The album’s carefully layered textures and rhythms are familiar to the band’s sound, but the execution here is markedly different from their last few albums. Where In Rainbows and 2003’s Hail to the Thief found the group in gear as a more definitive alternative rock band, Limbs recalls the experimental, cerebral, and texture-driven Kid A and Amnesiac. With that in mind, the new album is definitely not treading old ground though it might seem to at first listen. Since the groundbreaking Kid A, Radiohead has grown into being an electronic rock band. They laid waste to the imitators that album had spawned with In Rainbows. Now with The King of Limbs, they are delving deeper into electronic music and rhythmic experiments.
Like with Kid A, the influence of Aphex Twin and Autechre takes the fore. Things have changed in eleven years though, and they have a firmer grasp of that music, along with Can. Lyrically, Thom Yorke is at his most abstract and his vocals cascade over the music much like Damo Suzuki of Can. The rest of the band are seemingly tighter than ever, aided of course by sampling, looping, and sequencing. Even with heavier studio manipulation, the band still remains the unique unit that is Radiohead. What makes The King of Limbs a new venture for the group is that rhythm is the focal point of the record. It is not a guitar record, marking another similarity to Kid A, but it isn’t a synthesizer driven record. The aforementioned vocal cascades steer the record away from focusing on words and melody. Perhaps for the first time in the band’s career, Phil Selway’s percussion takes a bit of the spotlight.
The way the album blends atmospheres, textures, and rhythm to create mood is quite similar to how U2 achieved success on some of The Joshua Tree’s songs, and beyond. The King of Limbs doesn’t aim for the same epic scope though. Limbs’ small scale (short on songs and overall length with eight songs at roughly 38 minutes) is peculiar for the band even if they were never terribly epic in proportions, but the album nevertheless feels complete.
Indeed, instead of relying on the strength of one or two tracks and a slough of album cuts, the album ties itself together as one complete mood piece. This, again, makes it even more similar to Kid A, but the landscape is much less sparse than most of that album. Limbs is populated with dense polyrhythms, airy vocals, occasional horns, and strong doses of electronica. Where Kid A was spacey, The King of Limbs is full-blown science fiction—Kid A like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Limbs like Minority Report, if you will. Even if there are some quieter moments like the beautiful “Codex” on the second half of Limbs, it is by and large a very busy sounding record. It is to the band’s credit that an album that is often so dense can affect such calming moods. This draws them closer to their electronica influences, Can’s Future Days, and even some jazz.
One thing is for sure: this is not a pop album. It’s not even really a rock album, either. It’s an album of ideas. Nothing wrong with a bit of pretension though, and one should expect nothing less from Radiohead at this point in the game. And again, it is not is a guitar album—Jonny Greenwood seems to have all but abandoned the instrument, instead finding time to score films outside the band and explore more synth territory with the band. Since OK Computer, there has been a continual decline in the band’s use of guitars. And interestingly enough, Greenwood’s guitar solo from “Paranoid Android” was voted by readers of Guitar Legends magazine as the 34th greatest guitar solo of all time back in 2001. That may have been ten years ago, but it’s still a bit of a surprise to see Jonny Greenwood on a list with the likes of Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen and more. Greenwood’s further absence on the instrument is no doubt alienating many fans who long for the sounds of OK Computer, Hail to the Thief, and the nearly forgotten The Bends.
The King of Limbs is often a seemingly impenetrable record as well. As an art rock record, this is not surprising. But, as the follow up to the well received and commercially viable In Rainbows, the opaque Limbs is a curveball. Though it’s clear that the album was not intended as a sequel, it’s still hard to see through. It could be difficult perhaps if one is looking too deep, as the album seems to functions as one big mood piece.
What makes the album difficult as a mood piece though is the lack of standout tracks. “Lotus Flower” might be the first single (and may very well end up the last), but its placement on the album leaves it caught in the current. The album does have a curious ebb and flow to it, each song leading very well into the next, but almost to the point of losing the songs to the album as a whole. This is a marked difference between Limbs and Kid A. There are no standouts like “Everything In Its Right Place,” “The National Anthem,” “How to Disappear Completely,” or “Optimistic” to be found here.
The other important difference between Limbs and Kid A is the fact that the sounds and ideas on Kid A were new for Radiohead (and perhaps the world) in 2000. Now eleven years after that landmark, Limbs might sound fresh, but it’s not quite as adventurous. While some of the ideas are new to Radiohead, the presentation follows the trend the group has been on since Kid A: wholly pretentious, cryptic, electronic. Of course they’d been pretentious and cryptic with OK Computer, but since then the two elements have become staples of their identity.
More or less, if Amnesiac was the de facto sequel to Kid A, this album may be the third installment. And a word of advice: don’t expect the next OK Computer, Kid A, or In Rainbows—let this one grow on you.
"The King of Limbs is often a seemingly impenetrable record as well" I would totally disagree with this statement. The problem is the album was too penetrable. You get the jist of it very quickly and see that it is mostly bare. Not a whole lot to work with; which is what people have not expected from a Radiohead album since the early years. The upcoming remix album is their attempt at adding some spice to the mix.
I tend to find it impenetrable because a lot of it seems spacey for the sake of being spacey, which isn't much like them, I think. They usually operate with a strong sense of purpose, but I think that fell short here. It's questionable if they were aiming to break any ground or if they were, like I said, being spacey for spacey's sake.
As for the remix album, I'd be skeptical. It would seem they took long enough to release Limbs, so the idea of putting out a "director's cut" would be setting them back two steps. It won't be like Amnesiac, which put them in a holding pattern after Kid A, but there was still enough interesting material to get us fans by. I think the remix will be setting them back. Limbs is fine enough on its own, and instead of remixing it'd be better for them to just write new material and keep moving forward.