Radiohead: The King Of Limbs review

24th Feb 2011 | 15:06

Radiohead: The King Of Limbs review
Radiohead - The King Of Limbs
On Valentine's Day 2011, this web page was the first glimpse fans got of The King Of Limbs.

So we assume that by now you’ve all either heard The King Of Limbs or decided that you don’t care enough to bother with it. Either way, it’s unlikely that you’ve managed to make it through the last week without noticing that it was released.

Excuse us for pointing out the obvious, but these days the release of a new Radiohead album is a massive event. When In Rainbows was released in 2007 - which, as a sidenote, Team MusicRadar generally agree is the band’s best album - it was almost over-shadowed by the pay-what-you-like business model that the band used to put it out.

While The King Of Limbs comes with a set price, it’s also self-released and Radiohead are still being creative with their digital distribution. This time around they opted to announce the album via Twitter and Facebook, and then made it available a day earlier than promised seemingly just because they could.

So, what about The King Of Limbs itself? The name comes from an old oak tree in Savernake Forest, near the studio where the album was recorded. Supposedly said tree ties in with the themes of the record somehow… We'll leave you to work that one out.

The album is Radiohead’s shortest ever, clocking in at less than 40 minutes, and once again long-time collaborator Nigel Godrich has returned to co-produce.

If past Radiohead albums have been categorised as either ‘guitar’ or ‘electronic’ albums (or as various mixes of the two), then The King Of Limbs feels like it should be seen as their percussive record.

As on In Rainbows, the band have found a nice mix between their traditional instrument set up and the synthesised, sampled and manipulated sound that they introduced around the time of Kid A. Yet this time around it seems like their songwriting is very much focused on rhythm, with many of the instruments taking an almost entirely percussive role for much of the album.

To explain what we mean, let’s take a track-by-track look at The King Of Limbs.

First up: Bloom

Radiohead: The King Of Limbs review
Radiohead on stage while touring previous album In Rainbows.

Bloom opens the album with a looped and delayed piano sample reminiscent of the work of minimal-composer Philip Glass.

As we’ve already mentioned, The King Of Limbs is a very rhythmically focused record. The drums that come in on Bloom are a cropped and looped sample that emphasises the rhythmic, motorik style that drummer Phil Selway has become known for through Radiohead’s live performances.

What quickly becomes clear on Bloom, and is true for the majority of TKOL, is that bassist Colin Greenwood has a major role to play. With much of the rest of the band focused on rhythmic and percussive parts it’s left to Greenwood’s basslines to lead the chord progressions and song structures - something indicative of the influence that Radiohead take from dance and electronic music.

Radiohead: The King Of Limbs review
Morning Mr Magpie
Thom Yorke and Colin Greenwood.

Morning Mr Magpie is the first of only a handful of properly guitar-driven songs on The King Of Limbs. The main body of the track is based around a repetitive guitar riff making use of lots of rhythmic muting, fleshed out with several other wide-panned loose and low level guitar lines adding melody.

To us, the guitar parts instantly bring to mind New York based band TV On The Radio - not a surprising comparison, bearing in mind that TOTR regularly admit to being heavily influenced by Radiohead (their debut album was named OK Calculator).

As with a lot of Phil Selway’s drum parts over more recent Radiohead albums, the drum beat to Morning Mr Magpie owes a heavy debt to krautrock. Towards the end of the track a panned delay on the hi-hats thickens out the drum sound, slightly changing the rhythm.

Like many songs that eventually turn up on Radiohead albums, Morning Mr Magpie is actually a reworked version of a song that's been floating around for some time. Check out this video of Thom Yorke performing the original version, called Morning M'Lord, from a Hail To The Thief era webcast.

Probably one of the stand-out tracks on The King Of Limbs, the track makes great use of the various rhythmic devices to add to the tension of Thom Yorke’s (possibly) politically motivated lyrics.

Radiohead: The King Of Limbs review
Little By Little
Performing at the Grammy awards.

If we had to pick a favourite track from TKOL then this would be it (probably alongside Codex, which is coming later).

Little By Little opens with a jangling wall of guitars (and what sounds like it could be a mandolin). It’s mostly a traditional band set-up, but the drums are joined by a drum-machine halfway through and reversed guitar parts thicken out the sound.

Radiohead: The King Of Limbs review
Live in 2008.

Feral is certainly Radiohead at their most minimal. Again the main drum beat sounds like a loop rather than something that has been played live.

The stabs of heavily effected guitar and sampled snippets of Thom Yorke’s vocals add counter-rhythm as much as they do melody. Once again a deep, brooding bassline provides the majority of the tone and structure for the song.

Radiohead: The King Of Limbs review
Lotus Flower
Radiohead on stage at Leeds Festival in 2009.

It would be impossible to mention Lotus Flower - the first track to be revealed from The King Of Limbs - without mentioning that video. Four minutes of Thom Yorke dancing, in an equally mesmerising and terrifying manner, alone in a Warehouse wearing a vaguely comedy hat.

Possibly our favourite music video of 2011 so far. Expertly choreographed by the English National Ballet’s Wayne McGregor and even more expertly remixed by the good people of the internet.

Video aside, we actually got our first taste of Lotus Flower when footage emerged online of Thom Yorke performing it as a solo acoustic number at a Haiti earthquake benefit back in January 2010.

The album version is another great example of Radiohead pulling influences from electronic music. The brooding bassline and electronic kicks bring to mind LA producer Flying Lotus, who Thom Yorke has recently collaborated with (although we think the name similarity is just a coincidence).

Radiohead: The King Of Limbs review
Johnny and Colin Greenwood both run MacBook Pros with NI's Kontakt when playing live.

Codex is the closest The King Of Limbs comes to touching on material from Radiohead’s earlier career. It’s one of the least percussively-driven tracks, based instead around reverb-drenched piano chords and one of Yorke’s more coherent vocal performances on the album.

In terms of arrangement, you can hear a lot of Johnny Greenwood’s influence coming through. As the song moves on the piano part is joined by a stripped-down orchestral backing with horn and string parts reminiscent of a lot of the soundtrack and classical composition work that Greenwood has embarked on over the past few years.

There’s also a slight resembalance to the tribute to WWI veteran Harry Patch that Yorke and Greenwood recorded back in 2009.

In terms of Radiohead’s back catalogue it’s closest comparisons are probably In Rainbows’ Nude or Amnesiac's Pyramid Song. In all an example of the kind of great, minimal down-tempo song that Radiohead do so well.

Radiohead: The King Of Limbs review
Give Up The Ghost
Live in 2000, just before the release of Kid A.

Both of The King Of Limbs’ closing tracks, Give Up The Ghost and Separator, are songs that Thom Yorke has been performing solo live for the past year or so.

Give Up The Ghost is more of a traditional acoustic number than any of the tracks on the first half of the album, yet it still has a distinctly percussive focus. The song’s rhythm is built up around an acoustic guitar being strummed and hit percussively, and a slowly repeated sample of Yorke’s voice.

For an interesting perspective on how Give Up The Ghost is built, watch this video of Thom performing a stripped-down solo version about a year ago.

Radiohead: The King Of Limbs review
Johnny Greenwood on percussion during a performance of the song There There.

Another track that Thom has been playing solo for some time. Although comparing this album version to older acoustic versions we have to say that Separator really comes into its own with this full band version.

For the first half of this recording the acoustic guitar of Yorke’s solo version is completely absent, replaced by a low-level organ drone.

The body of the track is made up of Phil Selway and Colin Greenwood's input, providing one of the album’s tightest rhythm section grooves.

Radiohead: The King Of Limbs review

Here at MusicRadar, we’re always fans of records that don’t overstay their welcome. At just 37 minutes The King Of Limbs certainly doesn’t drag, and almost feels like it’s over before you’ve even noticed it. Which is kind of nice.

Of course, being so short and, as it does, shying away from melody and obvious choruses, it’s understandable that some Radiohead fans might feel a little disappointed by the record (a theme that seems to be cropping up on some message boards).

For us however, it feels like Radiohead are at a nice stage in their career. As a band they’ve always shown a penchant for playing with rhythmic devises, and The King Of Limbs is the album where they’ve really gone to town on experimenting with this element of their sound.

In interviews last year, both Phil Selway and Thom Yorke said that they were daunted by the idea of putting out proper full length albums, and that seems to come out through The King Of Limbs. If rumours are to be believed, however, this may just be part one of several records Radiohead are to release this year.

It’s certainly a much less grand affair than previous efforts, but that’s not to say it has any less to offer. After a week living with the album we can definitely say that it keeps giving on repeated listens. It may not be their master statement, but this is the sound of one of the best bands the UK has ever produced giving themselves room to play with the intricacies of their sound without trying to reinvent the wheel again.

Are you a Radiohead fan like us? Enjoyed The King Of Limbs? Then you'll probably want to enter our Radiohead competition...

To celebrate the release of The King Of Limbs we've teamed up with EMI for a special Radiohead-themed competition. The grand prize definitely qualifies for 'must-have' status:

  • All six of Radiohead's EMI albums (Pablo Honey, The Bends, OK Computer, Kid A, Amnesiac and Hail To The Thief) on vinyl
  • A DVD copy of The Best Of Radiohead: The Videos
  • A CD copy of The Best Of Radiohead
  • In addition, five runners-up will receive a CD copy of The Best Of Radiohead

To enter, just answer this question: Who is the producer often referred to as the sixth member of Radiohead?

A. George Martin
B. Nigel Godrich
C. John Leckie

Enter the competition here.

Entrants must be over 18. T&C's apply. Competition closes on 22/3/2011.

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