Blue Robot

Album Review: King of Limbs by Radiohead

Posted by Mike Hobson on 03/03 at 05:05 PM

Radiohead’s eighth studio album was self released on February 18th, a day earlier than scheduled. This event, one that many would take great interest in given the band’s global renown, was largely unforeseen until four days before the 18th. The album had a remarkably short window of time for pre-release hype—it has unsurprisingly still managed to generate a vast influx of response.

The band is no stranger to unconventional ways of releasing their work. Their last album “In Rainbows”(2007) arrived in defiance of music industry norms with its exclusively digital name-your-own-price tactic. “King of Limbs” is set at prices of $9.00 for an MP3 download and $14.00 for a lossless WAV format. It also departs from the digital-only release with its “newspaper” version, a package including two 10’’ vinyl records, a CD, and expanded album artwork. Despite the added price tag it is a surprisingly terse release at eight songs spanning 37 minutes, their shortest album to date. Within its 37 minutes, however, “The King of Limbs” proceeds in the remarkable originality that Radiohead fans have come to expect, revealing itself to be appropriately concise.

Upon first listen, it seems to be perhaps Radiohead’s least accessible album. Their work, progressing from 1993’s “Pablo Honey,” has been increasingly moving away from their post-British punk origins into more experimental and groundbreaking territory. They’ve continued to work with mixed digital, synth-heavy loops with earthy, raw sounding elements. But the experimentation always seemed to contain traces of 1993’s purely analog electronic feel, in songs with the same heavy, straight ahead drive through conventional structures (“the Bends”, “Paranoid Android”, “the National Anthem”, and “Go to Sleep” to name a few spanning a large part of their career). With The King of Limbs, however, it seems as if they have reached a new stage in their evolution, vaulting them even further ahead of their origins than previously thought.

The lead track “Bloom” sets this tone with an amalgamation of loops, mixing digital and live instrumentation while compromising discordant chaos and perfect balance. This mastery of timing and space is mirrored and built upon in the instrumental “Feral,” but reaches its height at the albums sixth track, “Codex.” This song is built upon earthy, distant sounding piano chords over a steady but delicate loop of electronic bass hits, with well-timed string section and synth-horn samples. The mixing on this track is refined to a point that questions the lifeless, over-compressed reputation of its digital format, one of the group’s greatest strengths. It ends with the sound of birds chirping, perhaps mirroring the vaguely pastoral lyrical themes present: “Sleight of hand/ Jump off the end/ Into a clear lake/ No one around/ Just dragonflies/ Flying to our side… Jump off the end/ The water’s clear/ And innocent.”

This lyrical theme is also present on the song titled “Lotus Flower,” the single off of King of Limbs that precedes “Codex.” Here it takes a more personal bend (There’s an empty space inside my heart/ Where the weeds take root), but its delivery stands out more for its technique than any latent content. This track is probably the album’s most effective display of Thom Yorke’s signature airy tenor, as it weaves proficiently around ambient noises over a simple drum and synth loop.

Radiohead’s changing sound over the past decade and a half has been polarizing, an effect sure to continue with their latest release. Some fans have lamented it’s short running time. Others are estranged by its subdued and slight feel as it comes off at times as depressive (see here for an example). This alienation is typical of work so far ahead of its time. Theirs is a style that at times begs close listening to garner appreciation. With all of its discordance and inconsistency with contemporary popular music, the first listen can be rough. Regardless, despite its release early in the year, King of Limbs will very likely end up as one of the more notable albums of 2011 as well as a memorable step in Radiohead’s career for many years to come.

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{name} Author: Mike Hobson
Bio: Mike Hobson is a junior at Penn State majoring in English and minoring in human development and family studies. He is a member of the Penn State Rugby Football Club, Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity, and he plays drums for local funk band Jackie and the Stylists. Growing up around a vibrant live entertainment scene in the Philadelphia area, Mike developed a passion for live music and comedy from a young age. His favorite bands are Led Zeppelin, the Meters, and Moe.

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