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Radiohead does it again

Christopher Collum | Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Last Monday, as the dust settled from the 2011 Grammys and anticipation built on the other side of the Atlantic for the next day’s BRIT Awards, Radiohead made a big announcement. In a post on the quintet’s official Twitter feed, the band stated that its eighth studio effort would be released Saturday — a mere five days later — and would be called “The King of Limbs.”

As if one surprise was not enough for one week, in the early hours of Friday morning Radiohead announced the album was available for download 24 hours early on the band’s website.

This type of a release cycle is not new for Radiohead. Its last record, “In Rainbows,” was announced 10 days before its release in October 2007 and was made available for download on the band’s website on a “pay what you want” basis.

“The King of Limbs” was not made available for free (the basic download costs $9) but, like “In Rainbows,” it is self-released. Radiohead has been free of contractual obligations with any record label since 2004.

As it did with its previous album, in the past week much of the buzz surrounding “The King of Limbs” has unfortunately focused more upon the band’s novel method of releasing the record than on the actual music.

The first thing that is apparent about “The King of Limbs” is that it is short — the record contains eight tracks that clock in at about 37 minutes in total. This does not, however, give the album a “rushed” feel in any sense.

The musical tone of the album is generally very calm and slow-moving, something that could possibly become tiresome over a longer period of time, but in context actually counteracts the album’s brevity nicely.

Opener “Bloom” begins with an eerie piano loop that continues on for about 15 seconds before guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s single-note vibrato and a bustling polyrhythmic drum sample begins to play across one another. Finally, after more than a minute of this, singer Thom Yorke begins in his now instantly recognizable tenor: “Open your mouth wide / The universe will sigh.”

The record sounds anything but formulaic, but Radiohead is in fact following a formula here: its own. This is the formula the band invented in 1997 with “OK Computer,” tore apart three years later with “Kid A,” and has been refining ever since in different forms.

From the very beginning, “The King of Limbs” sounds like a Radiohead album. All the elements are here: the thick contextual layering, the complex electronic stylings — we have come to expect all of these things from the band. But the fascinating thing about “The King of Limbs” is that in spite of this, it really doesn’t sound like any previous Radiohead album in particular. Call it a new twist on an old formula, if you will.

Important to note is the fact that this album is probably the farthest removed sonically from the grunge of 1995’s “The Bends,” the arena rock of “OK Computer,” or even the fuzz-driven atmospherics of “In Rainbows.” “The King of Limbs” easily has the least “rock” moments of any previous album. Even the starkly electronic “Kid A” had “How to Disappear Completely,” which was a far cry from an arena rock anthem, but at least it was guitar-centered. Look for none of that here.

Instead, the band has very obviously been influenced by the experimental electronica of artists such as Flying Lotus or Four Tet, as well as the bass-heavy genre of British dance music known as “dubstep.” Bassist Colin Greenwood’s work is essential in many places because of this.

The only song that could really be said to feature something similar to traditional instrumentation is “Codex,” which happens to be the album’s outstanding highlight.

Coming off the heels of ethereal first single “Lotus Flower,” “Codex” brings the listener back to earth with its dulcet piano tones and one of the sweetest melodies Yorke has ever penned. He plumbs the same emotional well as “In Rainbows” closer “Videotape,” or maybe even the classic “Fake Plastic Trees.” “Sleight of hand / Jump off the end / Into a clear lake / No one around,” Yorke sings.

While the band has significantly altered its sound once again on “The King of Limbs,” Yorke’s songwriting has not changed. He continues the same trends of alienation and confusion that have been found on every Radiohead album of the past 15 years — with the exception of “In Rainbows,” which was a brief respite exploring love and humanity.

“The King of Limbs” is what every Radiohead album is — a seemingly off-the-wall abstraction that progresses the band’s ever-changing sound even further. How it stacks up compared to the legacy of “OK Computer,” “Kid A,” and, depending on who you talk to, maybe “In Rainbows,” is not yet apparent.

What is apparent, however, is that Radiohead has done it once again: The band has created an incredibly complex album that somehow manages to instantly become engrained in the listener’s brain after one listen. Completely digesting the album takes repeated listens, naturally, but any previous fan of Radiohead should welcome the bizarre world of “The King of Limbs” from the beginning.