Amnesiac by Radiohead (Review)

Perhaps Radiohead’s most intense, experimental, and unconventional album to date.
Amnesiac, Radiohead

Recorded at the same time as the Kid A sessions, Amnesiac was anticipated to be a more accessible and guitar-based album than its counterpart. This assumption could not have been further from the truth. Amnesiac is perhaps Radiohead’s most intense, experimental, and unconventional album to date.

Amnesiac seems to trade songs for mood. The track listing consists of pieces of music, rather than songs, no more so than in “Hunting Bears,” where an isolated guitar picks a tune in the most eerie and desolate manner. It is a simple yet distinct sound that does not need any lyrics, drum, piano, or bass. It’s so convincing that the listener could be forgiven for thinking that Thom Yorke or Jonny Greenwood was actually sitting in the room. It’s a refreshing and genuine piece of music to draw the listener into the album.

“I Might Be Wrong” is a definite highlight, a standout track which completely shatters the mood created throughout the album, an inspired release of energy. It gives the impression that the “record button” was pressed 10 seconds before the band were ready, as it starts with a guitar, loaded with volume, just testing a few notes, fading in and out. The riff starts as a simple yet tuneful high tempo repetition with Ed O’Brien’s guitar gradually being introduced into the background. Yorke’s voice can hardly be made out over the guitars, so much so that you really have to listen carefully to make out the lyrics.

The song builds up to an amazing container of sound, until everything comes to a premature halt, and the listener is thrown into an empty place, lodged between silence and stillness. The listener waits for the CD display to move onto the next track, when Greenwood’s guitar makes a spectacular encore, subtly echoing the chords, and as the drums can be heard from a million miles away. That vibrant, powerful riff tiptoes back onto the song, a final, yet humble salute.

Perhaps the album’s only weakness is “Pull/Pulk Revolving Doors.” This is possibly due to timing rather than quality, as the track is inserted in-between the single “Pyramid Song” and “You And Whose Army?” — both characteristic piano-based songs, with Yorke’s trademark half-wail/half-singing barely making the surface. In stark contrast to this, the drum machine in “Pull/Pulk Revolving Doors” seems slightly lost and disjointed. The song consists of a seemingly bemused drum machine on overdrive with a indistinguishable voice broken in the background. It’s an immensely powerful and experimental track which is bound to stick out in the mind of even the most critical listener.

“Morning Bell” is the only song to appear on both Kid A and Amnesiac, the glue linking both albums. Kid A’s version is a more soulful, melodic, and inviting edition, albeit slightly dark. Amnesiac’s version is instantly unsettling and uncomfortable to the listener, yet there is comfort for the avid fan to know that this is Radiohead at their most inspired and open. The comparison between these two versions poses a whole host of questions, in particular “What if all the songs were re-recorded?” and “How different would mood songs such as Dollars and Cents’ and Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box’ and the jazz-inspired Life In A Glasshouse’ sound?” The possibilities are endless.

The difference between the two recordings of “Morning Bell” illustrate that Amnesiac is not a peak, highlight, or chapter in Radiohead’s expedition into musical suburbia; instead, it’s an open and honest snapshot of a band that are at their most exposed and honest and above all, unrestricted. In the Kid A/Amnesiac recording sessions, Radiohead could’ve effortlessly produced a successful follow up to OK Computer, an even more accessible album such as Pablo Honey, or a heavier guitar-oriented album such as The Bends. But that would’ve been too easy and predictable, and Radiohead do not come across as a band that would take the straightforward option. Amnesiac proves that Radiohead have nothing to prove.

Written by Paul Newbold.

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