I’m guilty. Despite my being reluctant to give in to the throes of reality television, I just can’t get enough of VH1’s “Bands on the Run.” What intrigues me the most, I think, is the flat out unoriginality of the bands selected to compete on the show and their inability to see themselves as carbon copies of early-to-mid-’90s alliterative rock. Take Flickerstick, for instance. Here’s a band of guys in their 30s who still think they’re 25 and that “Fake Plastic Trees” is the pinnacle of cutting edge rock. It’s another of those mystifying rock-and-roll paradoxes wherein bands try to make it big on the coattails of a defining album made a few years prior by someone else. Think Coldplay. Think Creeper Lagoon. God forbid, think of every band on the run. Like Flickerstick out there who have spent the past five years in the garage mastering the feel of Radiohead’s Pablo Honey and The Bends.
Thankfully Radiohead, like all good rock acts, just keep on re-inventing themselves, keeping ahead of the copycat curve, refusing to work a successful formula to death. Replete with dizzying feedback loops and faux electronica, 2000’s Kid A ripped the head off of alternative pop, simultaneously distancing Radiohead from both 1998’s guitar-driven magnum opus, OK Computer, and bands like the aforementioned who had quickly mastered their art.
Less than a year after the release of Kid A, several tracks recorded during those same sessions have landed on an equally perplexing disc, Amnesiac. Originally slated to be a return to the guitar heroics that had been noticeably absent on Kid A, Amnesiac promised to be a “return to accessibility” for fans put off by the spare landscape of its experimental predecessor. Kid A we were told, was an anomaly, the temporary disillusionment of lead singer Thom Yorke and his confession that he was “tired of being in a rock band.”
Judging from the first track on Amnesiac, “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box,” the return to the anthemic days of guitar rock has been certainly put on delay, if not put out to pasture completely. “Packt” marries drumming that sounds like your little brother banging away on the radiator with Aphex Twin-like electronic beats combined with mellow layers of synth evaporating and condensing from the speakers. Yorke sets the mood for those expecting something more rock as he admonishes, “I’m a reasonable man/get off my case/get off my case.”
“Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” is far and away the most obtuse track on the album, pulling influence from the drum-n-bass fringe for the backbeat. Fading in and out like a chorus of jackhammers fed through a blown-out speaker, “Revolving Doors” seeps electronic paranoia with obscured, nearly nascent lyrics and interludes of nonsensical video game like noise. Is there a statement here, underneath the veneer of the layers? Perhaps. Man vs. the digital machine, like in Tron? That’s for you to figure out.
But just at the point where you’ve been assaulted by the Digital Age’s invasion of rock sensibilities, the band chooses to mix expectations between the old and new Radiohead that seem to be at odds here. The second track, “Pyramid Song,” eases in with Yorke on piano, and slowly builds, lurching along to a queasy symphonic (albeit predictable) climax. What’s interesting here is that for the first time since OK Computer, you can actually sense that there’s an entire band behind the piece—not just Yorke, a drum machine and considerable time spent in the studio. Yet this surely isn’t a rock song by any means; there’s no hook, no discernable chorus or verse. It’s vacuous and spare, despite its appearance, but somehow it creates the illusion of being rock.
Fans of the band’s penchant for throwing horns into the mix on Kid A will be amused by “Life in a Glasshouse,” where Yorke, again on piano, croons a loungey number surrounded by clarinets, trumpets and trombones. True to form, each horn is largely engulfed in its own world, soloing around the main strain with a very New Orleans-Dixieland feel. It’s far from Coltrane’s Ohm in terms of sheer experimentation, and it surely doesn’t break any new ground in terms of the relationship between rock and jazz, but the song works, nonetheless.
Oh, but then again, Amnesiac is all about confounding expectations, now, isn’t it? The hook returns to drive the overwhelmingly catchy “I Might Be Wrong.” Built around a bobbing bass line and jangly guitars, the composition weaves its way around the hook as blurts and bleeps of both synthesizer and guitar feedback seethe just under the surface, almost unnoticeable. And then on “Knives Out,” you could rip the song right out of Amnesiac, put it in the middle of The Bends and not know the difference.
Despite these paeans to an earlier day, Radiohead have begun to move the remnants of alternative rock in the direction of the electronic fringe whether we like it or not. And they’ve done it so effectively in the studio that it’s sometimes difficult to envision an entire band actually having to exist at all to perform these songs live. But a large part of the act depends on the refusal to believe that all it takes is a disk drive and a voice to carry on the progression of rock—for better, for worse—and that’s what Radiohead have done. Two years from now, be prepared. The crush of Kid A and Amnesiac clones will be upon us, infusing a Potemkin understanding of electronica with an equally ill-conceived notion of rock. By then they’ll probably have a name for it, too. Rocktronica or something.
What will Radiohead be doing? Probably still being a rock band, and a damn good one at that.