“A Low Flying Panic Attack”
There is no-one in the world of music who writes music like Radiohead. Whilst they have a penchant for the melancholic and outright depressing their work resonates with a great many people. In the early days their largely guitar based offerings produced many of their “Greatest Hits” and established them as stadium fillers and anthem writers.
There is also no-one in the world who makes music like Radiohead. There are a couple of other bands, Coldplay being one, who always manage to get the arrangements on their tracks just so but Radiohead take this to another level. There is not a single noise (and there are many noises on Radiohead tracks) which has not been considered, reconsidered, tested, replaced, considered again and then edited and altered until it fits perfectly. It is musical science. A shining example of this is the single glissando during the final chorus of Codex which appears just once in the song and adds that perfect moment you didn’t realise was missing until it appeared.
The members of Radiohead are also masters of another rare and forgotten art of playing for the song. Watch any live performance of the band and you will see that it is not uncommon for Ed O’Brien or Johnny Greenwood to abandon their guitars and spend the entire track playing a tambourine, drums, an egg shaker or detuning a radio or effects pedal for added soundscape.
There is no other band in the world who does this as well as Radiohead.
They are like marmite. At least as many, if not more, people hate them as like them. Many people like their early stuff but fell out with them when they “went a bit weird” during the Amnaesiac and Kid A years. Indeed one music journalist wrote of one of these albums that it was difficult to distinguish if he was listening to musical genius or the sound of five grown men disappearing up their own arses.
It’s true – some Radiohead stuff is complicated. Some of it is dissonant and jarring. There are many tunes you can’t sing around the camp fire. Some of their most complicated tracks actually sound different and beautiful when completely stripped back to acoustic versions but this is also true of a number of Stereophonics tracks.
What is certain is that in a world of vacuous boy bands and constant covers and recovers which makes today’s charts little more than a karaoke act, Radiohead remain the fine art amongst the crayon drawings.
And so we turn to their latest release “Burn the Witch” which dropped out of the sky and onto an unsuspecting public yesterday.
Having played and replayed the tune and rewatched the video again and again I am convinced that these are not lyrics which contain a negative message about women though the obvious link is to think of the tragic and awful situation in Salem many centuries ago.
Rather – this song is about paranoia and non-conformity. It’s about mob mentality, moral panic and mass hysteria.
It is dark; it is sinister; it is Radiohead.
They have mastered the skill of story telling. Very few artists can so accurately make a song sound like the messages conveyed in the lyrics. They did it as early as Creep, they nailed it on Paranoid Android and they have done it again here.
Musically, it is as perfect as anything they have released before. It starts quietly but urgently with stacatto strings which remain present throughout the song. Enter the drums and the droning bass notes and then enter Thom Yorke.
To begin with we hear him singing simple short lines in a melodic reverbed tenor.
With the words “this is a low flying panic attack” the backdrop begins to change as the strings start to sweep more dramatically.
Thom has one of the finest falsetto voices in modern music and the ease with which he switches vocal registers is something all singers envy. It is a true gift and it is employed to full effect right about now.
Against Johnny Greenwoods Bond-Theme like orchestration Yorke’s floating and pitch perfect vocal soars in complete contrast to the heavy bass-like strings.
The beauty and clarity of his voice is in total and deliberate conflict with the violent and threatening words he is singing. It is genius.
We return for the next verse before the next chorus which manages to be even more beautiful and complicated than the first and which then culminates in an ending which can best be described as a crescendo of claustrophobia.
If there were a perfect soundtrack to a horror film – this would be in it. It is truly eerie and, in the context of the words, entirely in-keeping. It really is the audio equivalent of a low flying panic attack.
There are so many stand out moments in this short recording. Yorke’s “voice as instrument” comes to the fore as it does so often; the dissonant harmonies and the way in which they resolve; how the strings move from scratching to legato slurring at exactly the right moment; the tempo; the way it builds; the way it ends.
This is not new Radiohead – nor is it old Radiohead.
What it is is the best of Radiohead combined into one track. It is an evolution. It’s not more of the same and yet it remains very familiar to the seasoned fan.
It is rare in this day and age of processed copy-pop music to hear something which makes you stop and go “what just happened there?”
This is one of those moments. It gets better on each listening as you start to pick out the detail of what is going on.
It’s an incredible track which I hope heralds the form of the whole new album. I, for one, cannot wait to see how and if they can interpret this live on stage.