The curtain has risen for the next act in Radiohead’s inscrutable rock opera. And like one filled with heavyset women with Viking horns, “Hail to the Thief” leaves the ears and minds with a palpable sense of unconscious design. Since the release of ‘Kid A’, Radiohead have been beating their drum to a distinctly different beat. These rock savants are the front-runners of musical experimentation on an opulent scale and their latest work seems like natural progression. Splicing in elements of both ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac’ and then sprinkling an inkling of their earlier progressive rock, this 14 track assemblage holds true to the dictionary definition of the word “opus”. An artistic work on multiple plateaus, the only element they seem unable to outdo is themselves; a boundary they cast when they unleashed the masterful dexterity of ‘Kid A’.
Pushing musical extremities has been the silver lining to decades worth of industrial common ground but perhaps, in this time where fashion and business so clearly bombard the general buying public, an act that does so (push these boundaries) with genuine panache is heralded as music’s savior. Radiohead are traveling down paths carved before by the likes of Pink Floyd and The Doors of yesteryear and the Flaming Lips of today, and like these aforementioned artists – their long lasting creative appeal will win out in the end, even in a “less than astute” society.
For all the electronic tinkering and jangled instrumental workings of their previous two LPs, it seems Yorke and company are finally comfortable with their new visage. They are no longer breaking conceptions, but rather creating their own – a pretentious ode to themselves; self created gods of music purveying a craft in the genre previously known as ‘rock’.
Thankfully, they are unafraid to trace back to their earlier sounds, “Hail to the Thief” comfortably flaunts morsels of more traditional sounding compositions. Take the tracks “Go to Sleep” (a concoction of guitar twiddling and fringe percussion work) and “Sail to the Moon” (an aural, picturesque piano led number with acerbic lyrics – “maybe you’ll be president / but know right from wrong / or in the flood / you’ll build an Ark” – compounding it’s sense of hopelessness) as examples how they turn the accepted norms of rock arrangements into a seemingly effortless task.
In “Where I End and You Begin”, they seem to beg the question, “can anyone out there keep up with us?” This evocative bass frenzy of engine drumming and wavering vocal toil is adherently simple – but attempted by any other outfit and the result is guaranteed to end in musical miscarriage.
Trust Radiohead to continue their quest to shatter all previously formed ideas of music as art. In “Sit Down. Stand Up”, they once again utilize seeds of ambience and electronic hobnobbing before embarking on a trip of cacophonous delight. Replete with the vestiges of “Idioteque”, the pulsating bounce of the track “Backdrifts” is remarkable soundscaping of tune and dissonance; leaving the mind with lasting inhuman relapse; a textural tumble into digital euphoria.
The first single “There There” is a triumphant balance between this cacophonous delight and artistic cadence. Yorke’s falsetto hum is its operator while the scenic, earthy backdrop is provided by the ancestral sounding instrumental collaboration that is unafraid to be traditional in aesthetic, but eloquently inspired nonetheless. It’s unending sense of confusion, affirmed by the words; “In pitch dark I go walking in your landscape / broken branches trip me as I speak / just cos you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there” are it’s acting thoughts of loneliness and prevailing sadness.
Radiohead are no longer simply out-dueling their musical counterparts. Their latest effort is testament to that notion. They have no equal. Their only antagonism emanates from any inner struggle that may confound them. The political wranglings of the title “Hail to the Thief” aside (a virulent stab at stolen elections), this progression of the Radiohead opera continues to set precedence among its kind (or lack thereof). It is a wonder where they could possibly go from here – do they continue on this jaunt, moving on to the next act, or do they pull another discerning audio/visual contradiction that will leave not only the listener, but the rest of the industry’s hopefuls countless worlds behind.