Friday, June 3, 2011

Radiohead - Kid A and Amnesiac

Radiohead - Kid A and Amnesiac
Published in 2000 and 2001

With OK Computer a resounding success both commercially and critically, there must have been a temptation to rest on the solid ground that they had created, seemingly from nowhere. The experiment in forward moving rock had been a success, and to keep moving further away from what they initally were would, to a casual observer, be an act of madness.

However, a careful observer would dispute this interpretation. Perhaps it would have been easier for Radiohead to continue on the epic album track. Perhaps they would be known as the new Pink Floyd and be able to put out long meditations on whatever struck them. This, however would have been musically unsatisfying.

There is a part of the human experience that drives us to move to new things. There is also a partnthat drives us to stay static. This is the tension in which decisions are made. If you are not bold, you will stagnate in the regularity, but if you change too much, you lose a sense of who you are.

Radiohead, as a creative entity walks down this path. The risk of alienaion of their fans is balanced by the movement into new areas and new fans. By remaining a band that is dictated by creativity over sales, Radiohead has not stagnated and has not lost itself.

Kid A is a record that sounds completely different than any of the previous works of Radiohead. The music has been created with an ear for defying expectations, but also with the intent of creating an album of extraordinary power.  This allows the band to get away with more than most, but it rigidly locks them into producing something good.

I am going to attempt to not go track by track for this one, simply because it is going to sound very similar to my OM Computer review. Let us be clear, there is no bad song on this album, and the great songs are perhaps some of the greatest ever made.

Let's start with The National Anthem. This is a song that is the closest thing to a pure rock song on the album. I am contractually obligated to mention that the bass line was written by blah blah blah who cares. It is a simple bass line, it was written at a young age. It simply kicks ass. The bass line uses it's simplicity in the strongest way possible, by making it a driving force in the song. Every moment that the bass line is going in the song, there is a percieved forward motion that allows the music to sound more urgent than it's tempo.

I am also contractually obligated to mention the horns at the end. Many people have said that this ruins the song, and the use offhe horns is a cheap stunt to create cacophany without any investment. They may have a point, but I like to look at them another way. As the horns enter, we hear the blasting and bleating as a departure from the sound of Radiohead. The music is residing in a space that we had not been in before, and as a reult of this change, we are taken out of passive listening and into active listening. By activating us in this way, we're enticed to compare the sounds to other songs with horns in them. This is not ska, this is not jazz, this is not classical. The musical space is a purely Radiohead defined realm, and the rules are defined by them.

By allowing the horns to attempt to overtly play indiviudual parts, we allow them to be seperated and individualistic. These competeing strains are a call back to the message of the song, which ishat even in a crowd of like minded people, one can feel so alone. By looking at it this way, the end of the song is neither cacaphony nor organized, but a collective effort of individuals attempting to create something beautiful and shared on the form of harmony, missing their mark, and forming a new kind of harmony instead. The distraction of the music is a powerful reminder of the individual.

The triumph of the collective and individual nature is obviously important to this album. Thom Yorke has said that the title is a reference to the first human clone. This achievement would be a triumph of humanity, a collective effort, but perhaps an individual tragedy. The child at the center of it all would not understand why he was what he was, and nit understand that he was important. This person would be detached from humanity by virtue of being one of fhe greatest achievements of the species.

This emotion is perhaps best reflected in How To Disappear Completely.  The use of acoustic guitars, the brishig of the snare and the wandering bass line is incredibly private sounding. The lyrics are from the perspective of someone who is either unnoticed or noticed too much. As the chorus states, I'm not here, This isn't happening. The song itself is an escape for the mind of the singer, whether or not his body is physically able to move or not. The reflected feelings of alienation and wishes of escape and freedom to move freely is completely in the character of this album, and is clearly the point of much of it.

By exploring both of these conflicting sounds, Radiohead opened it's world up to a both a wider and narrower audience. Those who could find one song that they liked was expanded, but those who were locked in and completely taken with the album were narrower.

By actively ignoring the impulse to grow broader, and infact concentrating their efforts in the opposite direction, Kid A is a triumph of a band in transition, not a static band. Where they were going was past the reaches of where they had gone before.

Amnesiac starts with an incredibly percussive beginning, and the first tone is held back until about 30 seconds in. This song is one of the more accessable, but it is remarkable for a couple of things. 1. The guitar has all but disappeared. It has been replaced by synths and percussive sounds. 2. The sounds are both otherworldly and electronic, but there is a deep humanity to the track. 3. It is not rock music, but some kind of hybrid.

The most arresting song of Amnesiac is the next song, Pyramid Song. It is arresting because the song follows a traditional format in an untradtional way. The song has a moving piano line, that makes a huge impression on the listener immediately. The piano, however plays the percussive or bass role in the song, repeating the same chords over and over, and allowing the voice and various other instruments to take the melody.

Pyramid song is one of the few songs that seems delivered straight from another world. The parts seem to be obvious, a stripped down piano that builds to a huge climax and then releases slowly. But the song just slowly eats itself in such a way that the entirety of it is swollowed up, leaving the listener grasping at the end of the song, just to find somewhere to hold onto.

As we move farther into the album, the sonic landscape is taken up by incredibly diverse computerized loops and sounds, giving the impression of a spiky and distopian far future. The sounds of the album are rarely warm and inviting, or at least don't inspire the same level of pathos in you as some off of OK and even Kid A.  Even You and Whose Army uses a vocal effect to put space between the listener and the singer, keeping a dreamy distant feel to the whole affair.

The entire album is incredibly diverse, and a necessary step to their canon. This should be listened to as compainion prices, and should be seen as such. The sheer amount of purely interesting material is a good reason, but the better reason is that the whole band is astoundingly different than their other records, and the experimentation settled in a place of incredible beauty.

Next time on the Catalog Project -
Hail to the Thief, and Why it isn't a good album for beginners.

"Jesus, Krieger, you're still taping bum fights?"
"No, I've moved on to something much . . . darker."

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