Radiohead is one of the most celebrated alternative rock groups of the last two decades, wowing critics while maintaining a sizable following across the globe despite their insistence on producing challenging, forward-thinking music. When the British band began in the ‘90s, they resembled a traditional modern-rock group, but in subsequent years the quintet has slowly moved away from conventional guitar-and-drum-based music to explore experimental structures and tones. They may not be the most popular group in rock, but they’re certainly one of the most respected.
Radiohead came together when the band members were all attending the same school in Abingdon in England in the mid-’80s. The individual members went off to university but remained in contact, eventually getting back together near the beginning of the ‘90s to concentrate on music. In 1991, within a span of 12 months, Radiohead found management and then signed to EMI Records.
Radiohead released their debut, Pablo Honey, in 1993. Very much a product of its era, Pablo Honey reflected the snarled guitar energy of Nirvana, and the album’s hit single, “Creep,” was a dynamic, albeit familiar soft-then-loud blast of adolescent angst. At the same time, Pablo Honey showed the band’s interest in moody modern rock and highlighted frontman Thom Yorke’s gorgeous falsetto. But because so much attention was focused on the success of “Creep,” there were suspicions that Radiohead was going to be just another one-hit-wonder grunge group.
Radiohead responded to those concerns with 1995’s The Bends, a far more challenging, galvanic record. Though hardly ignoring mainstream songwriting conventions - after all, the album did contain the hit ballads “Fake Plastic Trees” and “High and Dry” - The Bends was an ambitious, guitar-driven collection that built on the epic scope of U2’s ‘80s records while introducing an element of unshakable dread to the music. Though embraced by modern-rock radio, The Bends didn’t feel part of any particular scene, suggesting that Radiohead wanted to go their own way rather than following trends.
If there was any question about Radiohead’s legitimacy as a formidable creative entity, 1997’s OK Computer removed those doubts. Now rightfully acknowledged as one of the ‘90s’ essential albums, OK Computer was a masterpiece of provocative record-making that perfectly balanced experimentation and emotional connection, fitting for an album concerned with the loss of humanity in a technological age. With their third album, Radiohead cemented their reputation as critical darlings, although they had hardly alienated audiences in the process - OK Computer remains the group’s bestselling record.
Three years passed before Radiohead’s next record. Looking to push farther after OK Computer’s breakout success, the band returned with Kid A, a keyboard-heavy, willfully distant album that nevertheless retained the group’s key thematic concern: how to keep your soul intact in a hostile, destructive world. The tension between the album’s often-frosty music and Yorke’s warm, urgent vocals became a recurring motif for the band’s albums in the 2000s, which continued to attract a large, loyal following.
About six months after Kid A, Radiohead released Amnesiac in 2001, which represented leftover tracks from the Kid A sessions. Although it did have its sterling moments, the new album couldn’t help but feel a little inconsequential and unfocused. Later that same year, Radiohead put out I Might Be Wrong, a live album that focused on songs from Kid A and Amnesiac. As with Amnesiac, I Might Be Wrong was more footnote than major statement, although the new track “True Love Waits” was one of the band’s most romantic to date.
Radiohead refocused with 2003’s Hail to the Thief. While the band hadn’t abandoned their interest in experimental textures, Hail to the Thief was notable for its return to guitar-focused rock, although Radiohead still made room for moony piano ballads and unsettling minimalist numbers. The band’s longest album, Hail to the Thief did have its weaker moments, but on the whole the record found Radiohead reengaging with the world after two very insular studio efforts.
In 2007, Radiohead was no longer signed to EMI and decided to release their next record, In Rainbows, on their own terms. That meant making the album available on their website for whatever price consumers wished to pay. The unusual release strategy generated so much commentary and controversy that it threatened to overshadow the actual record. Once the hype died down, though, In Rainbows emerged as the group’s warmest and softest album, filled with hushed, intimate songs about romantic relationships falling apart. It was exactly the kind of thing you’d expect from arguably the best (and certainly the most mercurial) band on the planet. It was an event.
Their new album, The King of Limbs (2011), is, by comparison, a decidedly minor effort. It was not preceded by a single “Death of the Music Industry” think piece, instead, it just sort of came out early, for reasons that, at the time of this writing, have yet to really be explained. (A press release states simply, “With everything ready on their Web site, the band decided to bring forward the release, rather than wait.” Oh, OK then.) Even a planned stunt set to take place in Tokyo’s Hachiko Square was scrapped at the last minute, due to security fears.
And perhaps all of that is fitting, especially when you consider that sonically, Limbs is assuredly the most minor thing Radiohead has ever done, a dour, insular, downright atmospheric thing that, from the skittering, jazzy fractals of opening track “Bloom” to the slowly decaying guitars and pitter-pat drums of closer “Separator,” works very hard at creating a mood . . . one that is part amniotic, part pastoral, yet all washed over in a gauzy, dreamlike haze. It is not an immediately gratifying listen, and it most certainly does not rock. Rather, it reveals itself to you gradually, in layers, at its own deliberate pace.
Like the early parts of Kid A, Limbs makes a conscious decision to bury the guitar work of Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien deep in the mix, slowly building steam instead on a pastiche of wavy electronic pulses, the clicking drum work of Phil Selway and the ominous bass playing of Colin Greenwood (especially on “Morning Mr. Magpie” and the roiling, dank “Little by Little”). The thing is, those guitars never really show up - to the best of my knowledge, there’s not a single solo on the whole album - or when they do, they’re of the ringing acoustic type (the genuinely pretty “Give Up the Ghost”). Instead, large portions of the record are dedicated to crystalline, echoing tracks like “Feral” and “Lotus Flower,” which, when coupled with Thom Yorke’s still-lithe (though heavily coated) voice, create the effect of standing alone in a forest clearing at midnight as the fog begins to roll in.
And in a lot of ways, I suspect that’s probably exactly what Radiohead was going for on The King of Limbs, which takes its name (in part at least) from the oldest tree in Europe, a knotty, slightly terrifying thing deep in England’s Savernake Forest. From the snippets of recorded birdsong that show up repeatedly (and provide the backbone to “Give Up the Ghost”) to the mossy, wet atmospherics that drip off nearly every song, it is about as close as Radiohead will ever come to releasing genuine field recordings. There is a damp musk to the album, a foreboding sense of inevitability. Like being lost in a dense forest - the light slowly fading, the path becoming increasingly choked. It is a claustrophobia that previously only existed in nature, a kind that is becoming rarer and rarer as we humans carry our ugly sprawl to each corner of the globe. That idea is just as terrifying as being stranded in a forest, if not more so, which is why, though it’s a minor album, The King of Limbs is still a major accomplishment - evoking emotions that powerful and primal isn’t exactly easy to do.