Friday, February 25, 2011

Radiohead - The King of Limbs

Radiohead is a band that needs no introduction. That brings us to The King of Limbs.

This is, in effect, the way the newest Radiohead offering was presented to the world. With no bells or whistles, the band announced via their website on February 14 that they would be digitally releasing a new album in just five days. On February 18 (a day before the album was slated to be available for download), the band posted their video for the leading single; then, with nonchalant indifference, they notified the world that they could download the album a day early, “if [they] so wish[ed].” All of a sudden, the newest album by one of the most widely respected and influential bands in the world was just… there. It was simply out. No big show, no months of anticipation while fans religiously followed a studio blog, no album release parties, just… Release. Radiohead fans were understandably excited at the announcement, and just as excited to be granted access to the new album a whole day before they had expected; but I’m willing to bet that most of them didn’t get anything near what they were expecting. And that’s the point.

Sonically, The King of Limbs plays out like a trip through a dense forest - a forest in which dark passages turn sharply into bright, expansive clearings, or descend into empty solemnity; where slivers of ethereal sunlight break through the thick and, at times, cacophonic canopy with providential design. From the moment that the album opens with Bloom, the listener encounters the raw, percussive expressivity that has become so characteristic of the group’s sound. Moving forward, one finds themselves navigating the precision and elemental realities of the terrain in Morning Mr. Magpie and Little by Little before being slightly disarmed at the disorienting inhumanity of Feral. Regaining their bearings, the listener then finds themselves drawn into the lush melodies and harmonies of the landscape, as Yorke’s otherworldly croon in Lotus Flower implores them to listen to their heart. Somber, effulgent rivers rush to a clear lake in Codex, as Thom melancholically urges us to “jump off the edge,” lamenting that “the water’s cold… and innocent.” The soft, acoustic earthiness of Give up the Ghost draws us back into the sunlight, and we end the voyage feeling somewhat unresolved, as Thom repeatedly entreats at the end of Separator to be woken up.

Despite all of the atmosphere, however, and the excellent (yet low-key) musicianship that has come to be expected of Radiohead, The King of Limbs still ends up feeling like an EP rather than a full album. It has a running time of just 37 minutes, indicates no real evolution of the group, and seems to have little holding it together beyond an arboreal theme and the fact that it has all been recorded by a band who knows exactly what they’re doing. Many have noted the similarities in sound to other Radiohead albums, but most seem concerned with identifying one album that it is most akin to. Certainly, the cold, abstraction of Kid A is present on tracks such as Bloom and Feral; the unmastered intimacy of Amnesiac hinted at in Codex. The rhythmic precision of Hail to the Thief asserts itself in Morning Mr. Magpie and Little by Little, and the tentative, orchestral joy of In Rainbows asserts itself during Give Up the Ghost and Separator. Yet while others have seemed insistent on identifying The King of Limbs with just one of the band’s former triumphs, I maintain that it is more of a succinct crystallization of all the elements which have made Radiohead what they are today; a cohesive summation of what the band has been and has become. These are more than just sounds which a band has cycled through – they are facets of the band itself, spreading out like limbs from the organic whole that is Radiohead. And there is novelty to be found on the album, as well. I can’t help but ask myself as I listen to Lotus Flower if it isn’t Radiohead’s interpretation of smooth R&B, while Codex exudes a pathos potentially unmatched by anything in the band’s prior works, comparable to Videotape or How to Disappear Completely.

So what have Radiohead done? The King of Limbs feels, in almost all ways, like an exercise in minimalism, from the way it was released to its composition. It feels like an EP; it is musically simple; it represents no grand step forward in sound or artistic direction… Due to these factors, along with the fact that the final track is entitled Separator, near the end of which Thom sings, “if you think this is over, then you’re wrong,” many have speculated that there is more music to come; another half of the album, perhaps. That this simply cannot be all that Radiohead has to offer after four years. I do not believe there is any more coming. In releasing it the way they did, Radiohead stripped away almost as much pretension as possible about what the album would sound like, what it might be about, and all other manner of posturing. It is simply a collection of songs that showcase a band who has proven to be relentlessly creative and ingenuitive. It is enjoyable, and it has its glorious moments. In fact, if someone asked me what Radiohead sounded like, I would hand them The King of Limbs, because it would be the most direct, explanatory answer. Is it possible that there is more to come? Sure, why not? Radiohead can do whatever they want, and I wouldn’t put it past them to change everything we think we know about an album. But I’m not counting on it. I’m content to sit back and listen to this piece of their soul that Radiohead has given me.

Listen to and watch the video for Lotus Flower, then buy the album here:

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Mesa Verde-The Old Road

The fusion of screamo and post-rock has created some truly depressing albums. City of Caterpillar's self-titled and Circle Takes the Square's violent masterpiece As the Roots Undo come to mind, especially. But none of them quite act as the literal soundscape for hopelessness and despair as Mesa Verde's album The Old Road. And what neither of the aforementioned albums manage to capture which The Old Road does perfectly is the unmistakable beauty that can be found in a proclamation of such sadness.

While post-rock/screamo has become formulaic within the genre over the last decade, Mesa Verde make the combination work to the best possible effect. The opener "A Deep Sleep Without Dreams" is a pure instrumental piece which jumps back and forth from a sort of metallic shoegaze to the fast octave riffing of hardcore. "For the Tree that Fell" then launches into a more typical modern hardcore sound, with chaotic guitars combined with frantic vocals. The album truly launches its sound, however, when the song lurches to a halt and quavering vocals sing a few strained lines over clean, reverb-soaked guitars. It's a stunning moment of self-realization for the band, and unveils the true beauty of The Old Road's sound- a gloomy yet gorgeous blend of chaos and softness that sucks you into its prevailing mood of despair.

Each of the songs on The Old Road have that kind of pivotal moment that makes each of them special, whether it's the reprising guitar line on "When the Canary Dies" or the soaring, triumphant guitar climax of "Return to Victories" which makes its appearance after a long interlude of clean guitars and softly chanted vocals. The real centerpiece of the album, however, is the 13-minute closer, "Post-youth". While it starts fairly typically, constructing a complex structure of fast riffs and violent screams, at exactly the halfway point it completely collapses upon itself and a lone guitar line emerges from the noise, playing a dominating, gloomy melody while the vocalist chants "one day my dreams will meet my fears..". This continues for a time, with various guitar parts being added on top of the existing one, and with the tempo increasing until the song explodes in a moment of catharsis as beautiful as it is tear-jerkingly sad. It's one of the most powerful expressions of human depression of the last decade, and by itself makes the album absolutely essential to hear.

The Old Road is one of the last truly classic albums of a fading genre, a monument to everything that made screamo great and a nod to the sounds that began to influence it later in its life, like shoegaze and post-rock. Above all, The Old Road is a wonderful, concise piece of music that seems to pass much more quickly than its 35-minute running time. If you had any doubts about the quality of modern hardcore, let The Old Road be their burial place, and the gateway into a fantastic, under-appreciated genre.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Parades-Foreign Tapes

Parades are the quintessential "new band" to check out from 2010. Not only do they present a fresh yet coherent sound which helps them stand out from the masses of fledgling bands, they do so in a way that I cannot imagine anyone who enjoys music having a problem with theirs. Parades' debut is instantly lovable, in the very best way.

The elements that make Foreign Tapes so good are not in themselves a highlight. The subtle horns in "Hunters" don't stand out enough to define the song beyond the gorgeous melodies and gentle piano chords. Likewise, reverb-laden guitars in "Marigold" and "Past Lives" don't make one think "Oh, that's kind of post-rock-y", even though the influences from that genre are obvious. The real core of Foreign Tapes is the seamless flow of the album from song to song, from dreamy pop numbers to more ambitious indie rock songs to somber instrumentals.

That's not to say the technical details on Foreign Tapes aren't fantastic. The vocals are a defining factor, a male-female trade-off which is as angelic as it is dynamic. The production is also impeccably good, with the loud drums giving the album a decidedly upbeat feel, even on the slower tracks. The instrumentation is incredibly tactful and layered, leading one to believe that this debut album was born from no small amount of blood, sweat, and tears.

The whole of Foreign Tapes is really much greater than the sum of its parts, though. The album ebbs and flows in a masterful fashion, displaying the restraint and songwriting prowess of a band far beyond its debut album. The mood of Foreign Tapes is perfect, creating a sort of dreamscape that is sometimes melancholy, sometimes uplifting, but never overbearing in either extreme. Parades have absolutely nailed it on their first try, and have established themselves in one fell swoop as one of the giants of the indie genre. A must-listen.

Listen and buy: