x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Radiohead: The King of Limbs

Click here to read a review of Radiohead's surprise album release, The King of Limbs, and watch the video of their single, Lotus Flower.

XL Recordings
***

Once again, nobody saw it coming. Just as in 2007 they unveiled In Rainbows seemingly out of nowhere, last week Radiohead surprised music fans by suddenly announcing that their eighth album, The King of Limbs, would appear less than a week later – and then they released it on February 18, one day earlier than planned.

But while most reports back in 2007 focused on their innovative (not to mention risky) pay-what-you like sales approach, it took a while for anyone to realise that something even more incredible had happened.

The band, who famously grew bored of guitars at the beginning of the last decade, had made the closest thing to a straightforward rock record since 1997’s OK Computer. So with this latest sneak-release mirroring their last, albeit with a firmer pricing structure in place and the promise of a physical format to be released later (a CD and two clear 10in vinyl records with huge amounts of accompanying artwork, all mysteriously billed as the world’s first Newspaper Album), have the group chosen to continue their experiment with accessibility? Absolutely not. The King of Limbs doesn’t just take the arena-hopping band back to the kind of avant-weirdness of Kid A and Amnesiac – it surpasses it.

This is an album of broken rhythms, glitches and atmospherics that will leave few lyrics or melodies in the memory of the listener, even after several plays. The almost-stuctureless opener, Bloom, acts like a warning to casual fans: beware – things are about to get very strange. After a few tinkles of piano, a clattering drumbeat descends, topped-off by Thom Yorke’s alien drone. But what begins as a bit of a racket slowly coalesces into a thing of subtle beauty, with whirling strings and Yorke’s vocal floating into the clouds.

Lotus Flower, already known for its accompanying video (five uninterrupted minutes of York’s energetic dancing), is perhaps the most minimal thing the group have ever done: essentially a restrained vocal performance, with the singer promising “I’ll set you free” over a looped drum and some echoey effects.

The shuffling, guitar-led Morning Mr Magpie brings to mind the sound of Radiohead’s last release and the almost summery Little by Little might even get the feet tapping. The album’s most striking moments are hidden in its final half, however. The ghostly piano-driven Codex is perhaps the only thing here that could attract new fans to the band.

Also breathtaking is the soulful Separator, held in place by a drum loop that manages to be both delicate and powerful. Glitchy instrumental number Feral seems to just take-up space on the LP however, and Give up the Ghost also adds very little – which brings us to the album’s greatest flaw: The King of Limbs is disappointingly short. At just eight tracks and 37 minutes, fans who have spent as much as £30 (waited almost four years) to get the album might feel like they’ve been had – particularly when a couple of tracks sound like they should have been B-sides.

While Radiohead’s refusal to repeat themselves is considered their greatest asset, it’s likely that many fans will be disappointed that this sounds so different from its brilliant predecessor – particularly because the group’s latest attempt at tearing up the rulebook is less successful and, aside from a few stand-out tracks, offers few surprises. The King of Limbs is unfortunately the most underwhelming Radiohead release since the group ditched alt-rock in the mid-1990s. It’s telling that fans have already begun to speculate online that, due to this record’s brevity, another surprise release could be on the horizon soon. How disappointing if they’re wrong.