Radiohead gels in new album

by Carl Burnett | 6/27/01 5:00am

In recent interviews, Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke has implied that the recently released "Amnesiac" and last October's "Kid A" are two quite different records. This comes despite the fact that the tracks from both albums were culled from the same recording sessions.

But those who expected "Amnesiac" to be a return to the unorthodox guitar rock of "OK Computer" and "The Bends" are in for a surprise, because "Amnesiac" explores very similar sonic territory to "Kid A"'s ambient howls and avant-garde electronic experimentation.

That's just fine by me. On both records, Radiohead show that they are still the leaders in making music that presses buttons we never knew we had. "Amnesiac," like "Kid A," invokes melancholy and alienation and other emotions much harder to describe. It is the kind of album best listened to alone in your room. Feel-good party music this is not.

"Amnesiac" mines a surprisingly wide expanse of musical terrain. On the opener, "Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box," Radiohead's recent electronic influences are clear, with a mantra-like refrain repeated over synthesized beats: "I'm a reasonable man; get off my case."

The album's highlight is the next track, "Pyramid Song," which was released as a single. Over a haunting progression of piano chords, Yorke sings about "black-eyed angels" and going "to heaven in a little rowboat." The song may very well be sung by a character contemplating suicide. It's one of the most unbearably and breathtakingly sad rock songs ever recorded.

From techno influences and acoustic piano, the band proceeds through bass-heavy spoken-word ("Pull/Pulk Revolving Doors") and drunken, sultry blues-gone-mad ("You and Whose Army?") before arriving at the superlative "I Might Be Wrong," for which the band brings back the guitar-rock sound that made it famous. A bluesy bass lick is the foundation for a techno-influenced, soulfully murmured standout track.

The most traditional song on the record is the next track, "Knives Out," a clearly enunciated, guitar-based song (imagine that!) that would have been at home on "OK Computer," Radiohead's magnum opus about the fear of technology.

It's followed by "Morning Bell/Amnesiac," a slowed-down, tripped-out re-working of a song from "Kid A" -- more disturbing lyrical fodder. (Example: "Cut the kids in half." Eww.)

From here the album begins a downward slide, not in quality but in feel. "Dollars & Cents" is a thick bed of drum sounds over which Yorke's vocals become increasingly frantic, before descending into a plaintively subdued refrain. "Hunting Bears" is an ethereal, vocal-free guitar-and-bass duet leading into "Like Spinning Plates," a beautiful and complex synthesized, bass-heavy jumble of backward and forward sound which evolves, after two wordless minutes, into the backdrop for a couple of electronically distorted verses.

The album completes its devolution with "Life in a Glasshouse," which employs a five-piece jazz ensemble, a piano background and Thom Yorke singing lazily until the song crescendos in a final spasm of life before the album dies out once and for all.

The material on "Amnesiac" is among Radiohead's best, and like its last two albums, this one demands repeated listenings. After the synths and bleeps, loops and fuzz, howls and thumps begin to sink into the brain, something amazing inevitably happens: everything gels, and suddenly there are songs where before there were none.