Reviewing Radiohead on a site dedicated to progressive music might seem strange, especially if the viewer is only familiar with the first two albums that the group have released. However the musical output from this band has changed and their influences have become varied with much of their music seemingly inspired by seventies prog rock from afar as Pink Floyd, King Crimson and Kraftwerk. Today the group have been touted by many music magazines and critics to be spearheading a new wave of progressive rock, somewhat different from what we had in the seventies, yet very much in the experimental vein which is one of the main defining criteria in my opinion about what Progressive Rock is all about.
Formed whilst still students at Oxford University in 1988 this quintet, whose lineup has remained unchanged, was originally called On A Friday. The group began pursuing a musical career releasing the Drill EP in 1992. The musical scene at that time featured prominently groups like REM and Nirvana. After signing to EMI/Capitol the first single Creep was released in the UK and was a moderate hit. Ignored by critics and by the general public, the group went on to release two more singles Anyone Can Play Guitar and Pop Is Dead. This was until Creep was released in America whilst the group were on a European supporting tour. Thanks to heavy airplay, MTV rotation coupled with touring with Belly and Tears For Fears, the single went into the Top Ten Singles charts with Pablo Honey going gold.
Dubbed as one hit wonders by many music critics the group released The Bends in the spring of 1995. Production was in the hands of John Leckie and the album was more mature sounding and was greeted by rave reviews yet sales were disappointing initially. Both radio airplay and MTV was lacking. However the group toured heavily opening for the REM 'Monster Tour' and towards the end of the year the album began to sell steadily re-entering the British Top Ten in early 1996 and achieving gold status in the U.S.
The group re-entered the recording studio to record their third album, OK Computer, released in the summer of 1997. A fusion of classical rock and futuristic sounds this album gained the group the title of saviors of rock and become the rock group which would pave the way for the future of rock! The final two years of the decade have seen the group receive unanimous praise and adulation ranging from the teenage indie fan to the middle-aged classic rock fan.
Kid A is the first release of the millennium for Radiohead following two years of recording. Once again they have defied all critics and expectancies. Instead of trying to emulate OK Computer the group have changed their musical direction and veered off into relatively unknown territory (at least for their fans!) and come up with another ace. Radiohead have become probably the most enigmatic group in the rock industry eclipsing even the mighty U2.
Radiohead - Pablo Honey
Released in the spring of 1993 this debut album by Radiohead was released to mixed reviews. Few believed that this group would be successful let alone go on to become one of the definers of nineties rock music. The sound was a three-pronged guitar attack which managed to fuse sound of the American Indie scene with that of grunge.
The album opens with You which shows clearly what would be the definitive Radiohead sound, at least for the first two albums. A fiery three-pronged guitar attack with Thom Yorke's pleading vocal which at times sound soulful and pleading yet at others seem to be full of anger. Next up is the single that made Radiohead - Creep. Reception to it when first released was moderate and only after its release and success in the USA did the British pick up on this single and Radiohead. Starting off on a slow, mellow note, something on the lines of R.E.M. the song suddenly comes alive with a grungy guitar sound bringing groups like Nirvana into the picture. In one song Radiohead have managed to create a synthesis of rock music of the early nineties combining different flavors all from an American market, and all this from an English band!
How Do You? is straight forward alternative rock. Short and straight to the point with little in terms of complexity, while Whispering shows us what the group are mainly capable of. Their capability in being dramatic, thanks to the soulful voice of Thom Yorke, yet at the same time create a rock song that has punch is a trademark of the group. This is wy till this very day nearly every alternative rock band has tried to emulate Radiohead in their combination of depression-ridden stadium anthemic rock.
The acoustically driven Thinking About You with its West Coast feel is certainly more uplifting as is Ripcord which would have made any Seattle band proud. In fact what one witnesses when listening to this album is the group's ability to conjure all the influences that there have been in the indie scene from Dinosaur Jr to Nirvana to the dramatic Red House Painters. A certain punk influence can be sensed in tracks like Vegetable yet when you think the group is going to let loose and relax, up pops a song like Prove Yourself which is probably the most British sounding of all the tracks on the album with at times hints of The Smiths.
I Can't, Lurgee and Blow Out bring the album to a close with Blow Out being one of the most outstanding of the tracks on the whole album. With Pablo Honey, Radiohead gave bands a direction. Few critics thought they would make it in the first place let alone redefine what rock music was all about. This is not one of those classic debut albums that have been released before, but one has to listen to this to try and understand the progression and maturity that Radiohead have gone through. A must for all collections as is any other Radiohead album.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10.
Radiohead - The Bends
1995. Two years since their successful debut and critics were waiting for Radiohead's second coming. Would it fail as have many classic second helpings? British rock is riddles with such failures with The Stone Roses and Suede just two of the many bands that come to mind. In came John Leckie as producer and guidance officer, and the end result was a surprise to most. Here was a band that showed that it had matured over the two years since Pablo Honey, the debut album. The critics loved it but the general public failed to pick up on it initially. However a bout of almost constant touring paid off as did the video to Just which gave them extensive coverage via MTV. The result was that by the end of the year this album was to top most of the reader's charts as the best album of 1995.
At a glance one immediately notices that the group had changed their modus operandi from the first album. Gone are the straight forward punk influenced rock tunes. Instead we have an album with mature material which rarely breaks into a power chord let alone becomes pacy. The kids have become grumpier. The songs are longer, Thom Yorke's voice has become more pleading and soulful, while the group is slowly being relegated to the background with so much as a strum to keep the momentum. This is why this album is a winner. Instead of becoming another indie band forever pushing the same sound Radiohead have developed their style so much so that they have become the role model band of the nineties.
One other point that I noticed when looking at the artwork found on the band's albums is that where the debut album was plain and simple, this is the first album that there is a substantial amount of artwork within the booklet. Nothing like the Roger Dean artwork progressive fans know about, but it is the first glimpse at an attempt by the band to break out beyond the rigidity of the corporate music industry and something that the group would continue to do in their future albums.
Planet Telex opens this album with some heavily distortioned guitars yet whereas in Pablo Honey we would have had speed probably included, this time around the pace is decisively slower. The same applies to The Bends with its powerful intro. Yet, the song which does it for me is High And Dry. Distortion is replaced by acoustic guitars while Thom Yorke seems to have found the perfect setting for his voice. At times Jon Greenwood's guitar reminds me of Peter Buck of R.E.M. due to his ability in creating those guitar licks which give such highlight to the song and at the same time blend in so well with Thom Yorke's voice.
Fake Plastic Trees is an acoustic ballad where emotions abound. The power that emanates from this song is so much more than those songs which the group has recorded with all guitars distorting. This song is one of the classics [and would later even be covered by Marillion - Ed.] Bones with its walking bass line gives us a glimmer of hope and that not all is dark and sad. At least not until you read the lyrics, yet this is one of those songs that bridges the gap between the first two Radiohead albums. Signs of maturity but still a hint of the indie influence. Needless to say it also happens to be the shortest song on the album. (Nice Dream) is relatively similar in style to Fake Plastic Trees where there is a domination of acoustic instruments complete with string section.
Just was the track that helped Radiohead break the market thanks to its video which ensured continuous MTV airplay. There is a feel of West Coast when hearing Jon Greenwood's guitar being played along with Yorke's voice. My Iron Lung rates as one of the more commercial tracks on the album with the power chords joining in towards the middle of the track. In sections one can feel the Pablo Honey grungy feel with all guitars blazing. A rare instance and one of the last times we will hear this on Radiohead recordings.
Bullet Proof...I Wish I Was is another of those dramatic acoustically driven tunes which is laden with sound effects that give the listener the sense of being taken on a journey. Haunting, frightfully disturbing, yet at the same time melodic and accessible. Black Star is a wake-up call after the bleakness Bullet Proof leaves you in. Short-lived though, as Sulk and Street Spirit (Fade Out...) take us to a world of gloom and melancholy. Though musically different, it is the voice of Thom Yorke which seems to touch you inside that makes the difference. Sulk could have been any common alternative rock tune where it not for the vocals. On the other hand Street Spirit gives us the myriad of influences that Radiohead have embraced to construct their individual style. Hints of Syd Barret-led Pink Floyd together with U2 and even the Pixies are mixed to come out with this masterpiece of a song.
This is a must. If you thought you could do without one album of Radiohead, I'm sorry but this is definitely not the one. No collection can be called a collection unless The Bends is present.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10.
Radiohead - OK Computer
Come their third album and Radiohead are surprising everyone, critics and fans alike. The musical influences have been changed completely and the musical structure of their tracks has been radically overhauled. In Pablo Honey we had shades of indie and grunge, The Bends was more melodramatic but the influences of the alternative scene could be felt. Now gone are the anthems such as Creep, Just and Nice Dreams. The Radiohead of Ok Computer is a blend of progressive rock and electronica. Shades of Pink Floyd, Brian Eno, David Bowie and King Crimson abound. In spite of all this there is still a vivid dramatic element to the music of Radiohead. Such is the quality of this album that it has earned its place in the polls as one of the best rock albums of all time and even a place in the Top Ten Progressive Rock Albums of all time according to Q Magazine.
Airbag sets the theme for this new album with a rhythm guitar section sounding straight out of U2 after an intro from King Crimson-like guitar work. The stark contrast to anything that has been attempted previously by this group is the ambience created throughout the track. Sounds come straight at you while there is an airy feel to the music, somewhat like the production work of Daniel Lanois. Paranoid Android was the first single to be released from this album and is one of the best songs present. A proggie's delight, clocking in at just under six and a half minutes, it can be subdivided into three sections. The track starts with a deep bass line along with a jazzy 7/8 beat moving into a heavier guitar section and solos. The final section has a choir of Thom Yorke's chanting away until taking us to the finale which is a return to the heavy section. This song is one of the masterpieces of the nineties.
Subterranean Homesick Alien is the third track from this suite which lasts twenty five minutes and runs through five songs, approximately the first half of the album, dealing with aliens in one form or another. Pleading for aliens to abduct him and show him the world as he'd love to see it, this song in many aspects reminds me of the late Jeff Buckley, where his vocals veer off sometimes resulting in wails while the guitar has that airy feel to it once again giving that "floating in space" sensation. Exit Music (For A Film) apart from being a great track is also an important especially when one looks at it in retrospect. Mellotron created soundscapes together with a slow painful Thom Yorke telling the story of the elopement of two young lovers. This track would be cited as the starting point for the new direction that the group would take post-Ok Computer. Let Down is another slow painful song which this time has the guitars coming across with their arpeggios to complement the desperate, haunting falsetto voice of Yorke. This track has more of the vintage Radiohead with more emphasis on the guitars than on keyboards though once again the production gives that airy feel to the music.
Karma Police is one of the album highlights and is about a party full of scary people. Filter Happier follows and is a demonstration of the eccentricity of this group featuring a computer programmed voice reciting a poem while set in an aural landscape of synthesized effects. Once again after hearing Kid A one can immediately see and sense the bridge between the Radiohead of Ok Computer and that of the future.
Electioneering is the only up-tempo track featuring crunchy guitars as well as a mass of sonoric discordances. So brash is this tune that it jars with the laid back angst-ridden attitude that prevails throughout the rest of the album. Climbing Up The Walls is a more mellow affair but it still has that sense of disorientation to it which so far seems to prevail in the second half of the album yet No Surprises is as its name implies. Straight forward and simplistic with some delicate guitaring, dulcimer and a X-masy sounding synthesizer.
Lucky was originally released in September 1995, on the War Child compilation 'Help' and was the only indication that one could have had as to what direction Radiohead were heading into. Also the success of the haunting video accompanying this track enabled the group to garner MTV airplay and thus boost the sales of the whole album. The Tourist brings this album to a close and as seems to be a routine with the group the closing number is always slow and dramatic, slower and more dramatic than the rest of the album! There is a sense of claustrophobia as the song drags on while the listener waits for some form of breakthrough, but it never arrives. Despair and anguish reign supreme here.
Finally with this album the general public has shown that it is capable of appreciating music which is not strictly commercial. Could Radiohead be heralding a new wave of Progressive music? Time will tell but nonetheless this album has made it into the list of classics.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10.
The new Radiohead album Kid A has recently been reviewed on DPRP as well and can be read here.