On Repeat review by AAU Composition lecturer Rob Warren 26 April 2011
2001 was a year to forget. It was the year that delivered such joys as the foot-and-mouth crisis, George W. Bush, an international War on Terror and the less known, Nepalese Royal Massacre.
Are you depressed yet? Fortunately the English alternative rock band Radiohead decided to release their album Amnesiac, although some may have seen it as nothing more than a depressing cherry on a depressing cake.
Amnesiac was released between two albums, the inspirational Kid A, and the less than inspirational Hail to the Thief. It was recorded in the same studio sessions as Kid A, and was in many ways overshadowed by the former’s immediate success.
Amnesiac is one of Radiohead’s most underrated albums, taking a back seat to others such as The Bends or OK Computer, which propelled the band toward international success. But do not let this deter you; Amnesiac is a “grower” and its variety and depth will keep you coming back for more.
Amnesiac contains a variety of sounds, from classical guitar and violin, to synthesised ambient and electronic, with a touch of jazz thrown in. It is a departure from the styles heard on their earlier albums, as guitarist Ed O’Brian commented; ‘suddenly we were presented with the opportunity and the freedom to approach the music the way Massive Attack does: as a collective, working on sounds, rather than with each person in the band playing a prescribed role. [...] Once you get over your insecurities, then it’s great’.
‘I jumped in the river and what did I see? Black-eyed angels swam with me’. The opening line of Pyramid Song, the first single from the album. The listener is greeted by a monotonous piano melody that holds the rhythm throughout the track. As Thom York’s grainy lead vocals begin, with his signature wailing, hushed chatter and softly quivering violins fill the background.
As the drum kick arrives orchestral chords grow, carrying the listener. The track has a searching quality; the path is not fixed, there is an uncertainty about where you are going. But beneath the uncertainty is an assuredness that everything is going to be OK, strengthened and maintained by York’s distinctive, and at times childlike, vocals. It is an emotive track that is very simple but brilliantly simple. It is an escape for the listener from the daily grind, but it may of course not be to everyone’s taste.
Other noticeable tracks include, You And Whose Army?, I Might Be Wrong, and Knives Out. Alternative versions of Like Spinning Plates and Morning Bell, can also be found on the album.
York describes Amnesiac as being coupled with its studio partner Kid A. In the latter ‘something traumatic is happening’, the album cover depicts forest fires on a distant horizon. Whereas in Amnesiac we are actually in the forest, amongst the burning trees, ‘trying to piece together what has happened’.
York elaborates by likening the synergy between the two albums to the ancient philosophies of Gnostics. “[They] believe when we are born we are forced to forget where we have come from in order to deal with the trauma of arriving in this life. I thought this was really fascinating. It’s like the river of forgetfulness. [Amnesiac] may have been recorded at the same time [as Kid A] but it comes from a different place. It sounds like finding an old chest in someone’s attic with all these notes and maps and drawings and descriptions of going to a place you cannot remember’.
Since Amnesiac Radiohead has continued to tweak their style and experiment with new sounds, most recently in the album The King Of Limbs and 2007′s well-received In Rainbows. But Amnesiac along with Kid A are a testament to the band’s originality. If the same albums were released today, they would undoubtedly be received with the same number of repeated plays.
Radiohead have often managed to stay ahead of their time, especially when it comes to studio trickery and bridging the gap between organic and synthetic sound. Amnesiac is only a small sample of this, but an important stepping stone in the band’s evolution.
Rob Warren can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Featured image by R. Adriel Vasquez