Radiohead's eight album King of Limbs continues the experimental path the Abington band took on starting with 2000's Kid A and 2001's Amnesiac. In that sense those still hoping for a return to the OK Computer (EMI) days of yore will be left brooding. For those who, like me, embrace the emancipation of Rock through the innovative use of electronic beats, sound manipulation and avant-garde thinking, this latest release from one of the seminal bands of this century does not disappoint.
The 37 minute album, their shortest yet and a trend we are seeing more and more as ironically the pendulum is swinging back to the original LP's recommended limits, has no 'filler up' material. All eight tracks can be considered small gems in compositional style as well as exploring new boundaries in sonic soundscapes through the clever use of voice inflections, intonations and sound delay. On this front alone, singer Thom Yorke along with producer/engineer Nigel Godrich, have outdone themselves. The latter justly called the "sixth member" of the group just as George Martin was oftentimes considered the "fifth Beatles" especially during the Fab Four's most experimental period.
King of Limbs opens with "Bloom", a staggered looped beat resembling a scratched broken record pretty much sets the stage for the voyage about to unfold. Yorke's signature voice occupies dead center while further on, secondary vocals appearing stage left take on an ethereal character, preceding the former as in a pre-echo effect. Greenwood's bass guitar is almost buried in the mix, integrating in the background while a recurring single bass note stands out from the forest, owing it's cyclic nature to the repetitive minimalism school. Sonicwise there is some obvious dynamic compression/limiting going on; though not as bad as most of mainstream pop lately, it is nonetheless a bit annoying and is responsible for some minor listener fatigue. Thankfully on that point, this is one of the worse ones of the album. On the positive side, there is good tone from lows to highs, the treble being quite crisp in fact, plus good detail at the very end.
"Morning Mr Magpie" brings a change of ambiance with a faster pace and Indian flavor, recalling The Beatles own delvings in sitar/psychedelic exploration of their middle period. In the intro, a panned delayed synth shares the right channel with a clean guitar contrasting with the bass in the center a bit later. The highs are a bit veiled, lacking top end air. The treble samples come out sounding dirty and sandy, probably due to a premature frequency rolloff; this also causing a resonating bass lacking precision. On the other hand compression/limiting seem less pronounced than the preceding song.
Thankfully the sound opens up quite a lot with the third track "Little by Little". With its slow crescendo, Spanish like panned guitars, castagnettes, subtle trumpet running in the background and offbeat snare, the feel conjures up early 1970's groove fusion such as Davis's "Spanish Key" from Bitches Brew (Columbia)and Babe Ruth's "The Mexican" from First Base (EMI Harvest). Vocals and guitar play in unison. The soundstage is wide and a bit airy with good detailed highs bringing some refreshing sound decongestion after the first two songs. A bit too light in the lows in tonal balance for my taste, yet it is still quite acceptable and less compressed. Overall it is easier on the ears.
Things get even better with "Feral" which to these ears is the best sounding track of the album. Drummer Phil Selway leads with a superb groovy 'machined' loop beat, superimposed with Yorke's 'Ha' voice samples. The combination of this leaves the impression of 'air being sucked out'. Great play of textures between the infra lows and crisp detailed treble. The rhythmic beats showing punchy kick along with a crisp rough snare stroke. The bass is huge and exaggerated approaching saturation but perfect in the context. Towards the coda there is an overwhelming low frequency tone juxtaposed with a light conga.
"Lotus Flower" comes in a close second in sonic terms. Starting out veiled on top, slowly a filter sweep lets the ascending highs pass through, revealing ever more detail. Panned syncopated handclaps plus solid kick drum not only add to the musical excitement but can serve also for testing the system's PRAT factor. Again several great panned effects surround Yorke's falsetto singing, sounding almost Soul like as if reaching out to Marvin Gaye in the clouds.
"Codex" takes a 180 degree turn. In this slow intro, simple kick drum accompanies filtered piano modified through a flanger-chorus type effect. The end result produces a dreamlike state atmosphere. Sound is fairly good. Very original and relaxing, ending with what seems like trickling water changing into birds singing (?) while in turn segueing into...
"Give Up the Ghost", a heartbeat à la Pink Floyd's "Speak to Me" from Dark Side of the Moon (EMI Harvest) meets early Neil Young, steel guitar plus reverb enriched vocals creates a different mood once more. Unfortunately heavy compression, hard limiting and lack of bottom end places this track as the worst of the album and definitely under par.
Finally "Separator" leaves us on a high note. Selway's great syncopated looped beat possesses a fine mix of snappy kick, snare and hi-hat. Add to that some incredible voices, floating and awash in panned echoes and delayed guitars, the whole journey seeming to end or perhaps transcend into space.
In summary, Radiohead's King of Limbs receives high praise for combining the best of both worlds — experimental structured rhythms and dreamy ethereal sounding landscapes — with decent and at times excellent sound, surpassing many of today's discouraging low quality standards. It will be interesting to find out if the double 10-inch vinyl edition will improve on certain aspects of the sound.