Vol. 28 Issue 1 Reviews
Radiohead: Kid A, Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief

Kid A: Compact disc, 2000, Capitol CDP 2435-27753-2; available from Capitol Records/EMI;
Amnesiac: Compact disc, 2001, Capitol CDP 2435-32764-2; available from Capitol Records/EMI;
Hail to the Thief: Compact disc, 2003, Capitol CDP 2435-84543-2; available from Capitol Records/EMI;

World Wide Web www.capitolrecords.com/radiohead/.

Reviewed by Nick Collins
Middlesex, Hertfordshire, UK

Kid A CoverA hungry search for new sounds has led a famous guitar band deeper into the world of electronic music. Perhaps they were doomed to this course from the moment they called their third album OK Computer (1997). With Kid A (2000), and its companion Amnesiac (2001), came a much publicized dive from live performance to studio exploration, an epic struggle with technology averaging six weeks studio time per track. The band seems to have survived the plunge and been strengthened by the experience: witness their latest release, Hail to the Thief (2003). This album of 14 songs was recorded smoothly in two weeks, and includes both guitar/drum and electronic arrangements. Reputed to show the band reneging on the use of computers, in fact, it shows a more pragmatic and spontaneous approach.

The last two studio records [Kid A and Amnesiac] were a real headache… we had spent so much time looking at computers and grids, we were like, ‘That's enough. We can't do that anymore.’ This time, we used computers, but they had to actually be in the room with all the gear. So everything was about performance, like staging a play. (Yorke, T. 2003. Online interview, July 2003, www.mtv.com/bands/r/radiohead/news_feature_061903/index2.jhtml)

A useful insight into the Radiohead composition process is that of an intensely rehearsing band who are open to new technologies to keep their live shows and song settings fresh. Paul Lansky, computer musician and Princeton professor brought by means of sampling into the Radiohead orbit, notes that: “As far as I can tell they just use whatever is convenient and interesting to them. I have an unconfirmed sense that there is an interesting kind of friction between electronic and performed means going on in their work” (Lansky, P. 2003. Personal communication).

To illustrate that rehearsal preparations and gigging are integral to the band’s pre-production process, live performances by Radiohead are extremely close to the studio recordings, and only Kid A-era material has been post-adapted to the live regime. As composers, Radiohead are a unit: most song outlines and the lyrics come from their lead singer, Thom Yorke, while the whole band has a hand in deciding on the arrangements.

Rather than exhaustively document each track across the three albums reviewed here, I would like to highlight some of the more interesting sonic explorations for the readership of this journal. It is helpful to consider that, aside from rare ambient instrumentals, all Radiohead tracks are well-crafted songs. So, please take as given that the songwriting is competent. Whilst certainly atypically interesting for a popular guitar band, with a good line in multiple accent streams, non-standard bar divisions, and a wider harmonic net than might be at first supposed, this collection of tracks has the usual compliment of diatonic vocal lines and simple major/minor chords.

The Kid A album is the most direct manifestation of electronica influences and techniques, and represents perhaps the greatest about-face ever accomplished by a guitar band. No standard guitar is heard until track four, How to Disappear Completely, and though more overt playing turns up on tracks six and seven, the guitars elsewhere provide only subtle nuances. Much of the album is spent in the lure of minimal-esque (but torturously detailed) arrangements that combine both coldness and warmth in the ambivalent way of contemporary electronica. The short-envelope noises and impulse clicks, the waft of air for pressure’s sake, the tightly-filtered percussion and pallid drone-states of glitchcraft all make their appearance.

For the first two tracks, the vocals are consistently processed, with lots of sample-playback repitching on Everything in its Right Place, and vocoding on the title track, Kid A, that transforms bewitchingly from reverberation to feedback to distortion in the closing stage. A four-to-the-floor low-frequency kick in the former track and some subtle spectral artifacts in the latter show the ready adaptation of electronic music conventions to the Radiohead vision. Even if the individual sources are sometimes well-worn gestures of the electronic music repertoire, the aggregate is often surprising. The eponymous track can be especially marked out for the beautiful chimes and bells and the incredible analog synthesizer string pad that fades in at the 3-min mark, a magical moment of sudden warmth, and an essential demonstration of how a composer can hold back dramatic material to great affect.

Twinned with the minimal opening of the album is a minimal close: Motion Picture Soundtrack starts out as if it is a reedy, “Björkian” Icelandic lullaby, but at 1:40 into the track the most wondrous, gushing harp-glissando loop is unleashed, panning merrily across the stereo field and, at the very end, detuning into strange harmonies. This is an extremely brave gesture, which almost backfires because of the difficulty of integrating such a scene stealer—once in play, it’s very awkward to pause and restart.

As some minor evidence as to how Radiohead might sound if they weren’t writing songs, the Kid A album provides two instrumentals. Treefingers gives an ethereal wash of abstract throbbing chords, with sustaining bells and portamento movements, which sounds as little like the popular perception of Radiohead as it is possible to get under the circumstances. There is also a short hidden track closing the album with a reverb-and-reverse gesture, freezing on a static bubbling loop before the inevitable fade-out. Either piece would be at home on an aloof electronica record company far more specialized and obscure than EMI (parent company to the group’s label, Capitol Records).

An overview of this CD could not fail to mention Idioteque, a two-step drum and bass pattern, on the slow side, with offbeat resonant scrapes, fuzzy sixteenth-note sequences of claves and a rain-like hi-hat. This is the piece, infamous in computer music circles, that samples, not as overtly as you might expect, electronic music compositions from 1976 by Paul Lansky and Arthur Krieger. On his Web site (“My Radiohead Adventure,” www.music.princeton.edu/paul/radiohead.ml.html), Mr.Lansky praises as “imaginative and inventive” the adaptation of his mild und leise, or rather a tiny segment of it, to produce the four-chord sequence central to the track. Idioteque ends as rattlings and a screaming radioscape take over the party.

Amnesiac CoverAmnesiac is a less-essential collation of further tracks from the Kid A period, with a greater number of standard guitar songs, but still a few notable electronica experiments. For the electronic treatment, Packt Like Sardines In a Crushed Tin Box can be picked out for its opening samples of a struck porcelain radiator, a sine-wave bass sound, and a “wet blanket” subtractive synthesis drum kit, one example amongst many of the seductive varieties of cheap, home organ drum machine sounds. At 1:54, a sculpture of tightly enveloped and sequenced synthesizer sound arrives, and there is evidence of granular processing on the voice. Pull/Pulk Revolving Doors has an aggressive but effective opening built of stereo-field jump cuts between full-on processed drums and a quiet restricted-filter version of the same. The manipulated vocal evinces well-prepared pitch deviations, and great blasts of reverberation are word-painted onto tokens such as “trapdoors.” The scrambling event-spawns which usher in Like Spinning Plates are present throughout this unnerving track, which center-stages an awkward (yet tension-inducing) reversed tape loop, also utilizing distorted throbs, alien calls, and pure tones. The integration is not totally convincing, but the sense of experiment is certainly there.

Hail to the Thief CoverHail to the Thief (HTTT) convincingly demonstrates that Radiohead has not lost their touch for rousing guitar songs, but clearly the Kid A/Amnesiac experience has been assimilated. The band has a wealth of alternative sound sources to draw from for their sonic palette. Even standout guitar tracks like 2+2=5 turn out to have some supporting synthesizer lines. Myxomatosis is one of a number of “guitar songs” without guitars, dominated in this case by a thick, Gary Numan-esque synthesizer bass sound which weaves amongst swinging drums, and occasionally harmonizing the vocals. Intensely modulating tones are gradually introduced, effectively acting as eerie breaks when the great bass is dropped out. Where I End and You Begin literally has a wall of Ondes Martinot sounds, beautiful sheets of wavering tones, and far more brave a solution than some dull cloud of guitar feedback. Sit down. Stand up has the rin-tin-tin drum machine, glockenspiel, and gathering resonant squelches of analogue modular synthesizers from the Radiohead toolkit, but its chief innovation is the swapping-off between predominantly live instruments and predominantly electronic as it transforms into a drum-and-bass charge and then back again to live drums.

The most interesting tracks on HTTT from this journal’s perspective are Backdrifts and The Gloaming, for both of which Like Spinning Plates from Amnesiac seems to have been the advance study. The former has a reversed/slow-attack sound sequence, early commercial drum machine rhythms, and resonant pulses. The latter opens with a transforming blast of ruffles and crackles, soon widening in layers to raw sub-bass, filter-arpeggiating claves lines, puffs of noisy air, pale pulsing tones, randomly-panning arcade plucks, and, in probably one step too far, an incessant electro hi-hat. This is all as support to, or perhaps even in ignorance of, a vocal part, showing perhaps not the greatest conglomerate, but nonetheless serving as an intriguing example of deliberately awkward and rawly discomforting electronica. This sonic construction apparently doesn’t actually use computers at all: “It's very old school electronica (on record): no computers, just analogue synths, tape machines, and sellotape” (Greenwood, J. 2003, Personal communication).

HTTT is full of interesting song arrangements; electronic music devices are used as they inspire or assist. This album is not really very close to the current preoccupations of electronica (which is surely a healthy thing!), but it is a portrait of a band successfully integrating techniques they once sweated over into their working practice. Kid A remains the purer computer music statement (although as mentioned above, even that is hardly a full committal to electronic music), but it is intriguing to extrapolate to the sound-worlds of future Radiohead albums: what will the band make of emerging technologies to the greater purposes of their live sets and song arrangements?

Radiohead can claim to be a very important publicity agent for the treatments and developments of modern electronic music. Such has been the success of Kid A that many Radiohead devotees rate it as highly as the anthemic OK Computer. In one of London’s independent music stores, Smallfish, amongst countless rare electronica releases, the only truly commercial CD I found was a copy of Radiohead’s The Bends (1995), and that album contains guitar-led songs through and through.

Though he doesn’t really consider their work pure electronic music, even Mr. Lansky has been counter-influenced: “On the track ‘Um’ on my last CD, Alphabet Book, I was inspired by Radiohead’s uninhibited approach to available technology in Fitter Happier and used the cheesy synthetic Apple voice. There is a humorous and somewhat sarcastic attitude about the 'voice' of technology in this instance” (Lansky,P. 2003. Personal communication).

Radiohead is hardly the first group to have appropriated that voice, but their public exposure, and their personal willingness as musicians to experiment with alternative sound worlds, have snuck them a place in electronic music history.

Postscript: Insights From Jonny Greenwood

Whilst many would blame (or praise) the band’s figurehead, singer Thom Yorke, for the electronica about-face (citing obsessive Warp Records influences), it is more profitable to focus on a shier figure, the “guitarist” Jonny Greenwood. Any veteran of a recent Radiohead gig can attest to the ceaselessly changing way he jumps from instrument to instrument, from laptop to Ondes Martenot, from analog modular synthesizer to glockenspiel, from waving around a portable radio to the electric guitar with E-Bow and host of pedals. Information kindly sent to me by Mr.Greenwood may be interesting to readers as a practicing composer/performer’s viewpoint on adapting to new technologies and making use of the heritage of electronic music.

A fascinating feature present in Radiohead arrangements is a pronounced use of vibrato and continuous pitch changes to generate sensual backdrops. Prominent examples are the impressive orchestral string glissandi of How to Disappear Completely (Kid A), particularly the unsteady reeling from 5:04 to 5:24, and the gliding siege of Ondes Martenot underlying Where I End and You Begin (HTTT). Mr. Greenwood scored the former, and the orchestral repertoire is one of his many enthusiasms:

We haven't started manipulating sounds of orchestral instruments. I just feel that there are still so many sounds and textures to get out of orchestras that are unlike anything, and can be far more disturbing/magical than most digital manipulation. I think part of me disengages with a sound when I can hear it's digital. Some people seem to think the orchestra, as a piece of technology, is somehow past it. But microtonal string music and choirs and suchlike are far more affecting to me, because it's simultaneously natural and unnatural. As a band we listen to a lot of Penderecki.

The Ondes Martinot is another passion: Mr.Greenwood actually played in a concert with Ondes virtuoso Jeanne Loriod and her pupils in 2002, and he includes her name on the album credits for HTTT.

I heard the Turangalîla symphony at school when I was 16, and became fixated on Messiaen and the Ondes Martenot, although all I could do was read descriptions of the instrument, and listen to Turangalila over and over. I didn't even see one until 5 years ago, and finally found one a year later. I love this instrument—it deserves to be as ubiquitous as the saxophone. I'm quite evangelical about this. I feel we're doing our bit by putting it in a rock group. According to Messiaen, when it first emerged, the very composers who should have welcomed it—the musique concrète movement—rejected it as being too lyrical and expressive… exactly the qualities that make it so great. Makes the Theremin look like a toy!

For yet another side to this explorer, beyond the rigid sequencer technologies of Kid A, Mr.Greenwood is experimenting with interactive programs like Max/MSP, and Cycling ‘74 also gets a credit on the most recent album. He thinks it unlikely that he will be producing solo computer music though:

The idea is that taking a laptop off a shelf is like picking up a guitar or an organ. Newer technology, but not better, just different. Having said that, I can't imagine using it alone.

When we play the song Gloaming live, the laptop takes over for the end section, using a Max/MSP patch which steals sections of what everyone else is doing, and carries on when they all stop. But I don't use laptops for generating sounds very often, mainly sound manipulation and MIDI generation. I prefer generating sounds other ways.

His experiences with Max/MSP may strike a chord with readers:

I've always felt uncomfortable having to use other people's software to make music. However limitless sequencers, audio editors, and plug-ins claim to be, you still find yourself being forced, however subtlely, to work in certain ways. My copy of Emagic Logic insists on looping the first four bars whenever it can (although it's good software in lots of ways)… With Max/MSP I finally got to think about sound and MIDI, and their manipulation, in a much purer way… I felt that all direct contact with computers had been taken away from me, until I found Max/MSP.

Max/MSP… suits my chaotic, wire-filled constructions. Lots have half-finished ideas embedded in them, which aren't used, and they've a tendency to crash during concerts. But I love it all: I could fill pages with obsessive stuff about Max/MSP. I've even started lurking in chat rooms, and idolizing shadowy figures like jhno and Karlheinz Essl.

Finally, to sum up the band’s changing approach to technology as an opportunity for new arrangements and performances:

With our last record, there was no time for programming in the studio, so every patch had to be written and working before we started. We had a corner of the studio set up for Max/MSP stuff, and it was all done in real time as we recorded. Part of the band, rather than one person with a computer and four people watching, as tended to happen with previous records. It's also becoming more and more important at our concerts.