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Radiohead - OK Computer CD (album) cover

OK COMPUTER

Radiohead

 

Crossover Prog

4.01 | 703 ratings

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Certif1ed
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5 stars Prog Rock for the 21st Century - only they released it in the 20th Century!!!

Radiohead are a band who, in spirit, are closer to prog than almost any band I can think of in recent years. Instead of borrowing from the old school, like so many modern so-called prog bands - a tactic which is obviously not progressive, Radiohead assimilate older styles into their own, forging a unique sound full of subtleties that can easily pass the casual listener by and fool him/her into only hearing the surface. It is absolutely clear that the entire band know how to play very well indeed.

This is a trick that Pink Floyd were particularly good at - hence the frequent comparisons. Radiohead have, with this single album, also spawned a thousand imitators - not least in the field of prog rock.

And the comparisons don't end there; OK Computer is Radiohead's Dark Side of the Moon, from the unified concept, to the 7/4 time signatures, to the rich, spacey textures. Don't believe anyone who says that there is no talent or musicianship on here - that sort of comment comes from people who think that prog should be 13/8 all the time with lightning speed guitar solos. This is not that sort of prog - this is pure, imaginative and creative genius, with plenty of talent.

Thom's voice may be a matter of taste, but it is unique, his vocal range is impressive, and the subtle nuances and emotive shades and colours in his voice put many prog vocalists to shame. His feel for a melodic idea is amazing too - the melodies on OK Computer are incredibly strong - hence the commercial success of this album - something Radiohead could not have anticipated!

Enough discussion, rationalisation and general faffing about - here's a quick dip into each piece, briefly analysing the progressive elements - but mostly wallowing in and enjoying the music from a prog point of view;

Airbag : Sets the scene immediately. This little piece is crammed with proggy goodies, and, like the rest of the album, unfolds in an organic way like the best Gabriel-era Genesis. The sweeping opening riff opens up into a cavernous space with subtle guitar and bass and keyboard atmospherics. Beautiful "upside-down" drumming counterpoints all of this very well - the track borders on TripHop, but played on real instruments. Johnny Greenwood drops in some stunningly spacey and inventive guitar work, generally avoiding the obvious and building up the soundscape. All the while, Thom's haunting vocals provide the icing on the texture, with beautiful sustain.

Paranoid Android : Requires little discussion, as its length alone ensures that many proggers accept this track as prog. The beautiful switches between textures and time signatures whilst maintaining continuity by use of ostinato rather than riffs is utterly masterful and the texture is well worth dwelling on. By making subtle changes using different instruments or different sounds on the instruments, and modifying riffs by a couple of notes, an amazing seamlessness and organic growth continues. The "Rain Down" coda that ends this piece is stunning and raises the hairs on the back of my neck due to the pure beauty of the melodies, and the brilliant vocal harmonies, many of which are quite far back in the mix - the counter tenor and bass parts are quite staggering, and put almost every prog band in the archives to shame.

Subterranean Homesick Alien is an almost perfect prog piece; an 8-second guitar piece drenched in reverb gives way to some incredibly inventive work. The building blocks are obviously quite simple, in the same way that much of "Dark Side of the Moon" is built on simple constructions. However, a simple concrete foundation is responsible for keeping many buildings standing... Again, the key to this piece is through the subtleties in the arrangement and the wide, spacey atmosphere, richly coloured with beautiful melodies in keyboards, guitars and Thom's mellow vocals. Phil Selway too, provides drumming that is exactly right, never gets over busy and knows exactly where to hold back for maximum effect.

Exit Music (For a Film) is a little prog classic! Thom's vocals are brought further forwards to dominate a soft guitar. Here he relates a story of sorts in real time. Around 1:35, a mellotron choir accompanies gorgeous change, in which we are instructed to keep breathing - the simple act of which suddenly make me feel a little breathless. The atmospherics on the next section provide tension and drive towards the "big hook" which first kicks in at 2:50. The massive fuzz on the bass contrasting with the delicate keyboard melodies and Thom's powerful vocal line combine to a symphonic sensousness that is practically tangible. The only real problem with this track is that it is too short.

Let Down clears the air after the claustrophobia induced by Exit Music. A laid back, easy start, with subtle guitar and keyboard ostinato instead of more predictable riffs creates a very soft texture that is easy to just relax into. For the first time on this album we see a kind of verse chorus structure, but it is all muddied. The double-tracked vocals are somewhat unintelligible and possibly just as well, as on the surface they are about the crushed (like a bug on a windshield) feeling you get from being Let Down. Underneath is the more uncomfortable feeling you get that you've been there...

Karma Police was a hit single, and it's difficult to hear as anything but - although there is no chorus to speak of - more an anti chorus; "This is what you'll get...". The incredible tag-line "For a minute there I lost myself" just sums this track up - it has as much charm as any on this album, but is in danger of death through over-exposure. Listen to it in the context it deserves on this album, though, and it starts to make sense.

Fitter Happier is one of those tracks. The equivalent of those alarm clocks on Dark Side of the Moon, it's a difficult track to accept - but a logical part of the complete concept. I still find the background piano and textures infinitely more listenable than the horrible computer voice - but the words are those dark angst-ridden words that are probably familiar to or at least strike a chord with the subconscious of many middle-class citizens.

Electioneering is the one track that hearkens back to Radiohead's alt-rock roots. Gloriously raucous and unashamedly riff-driven, revelling in dissonance, there is much buried beneath the surface - so don't press skip on this one; give it a few extra listens. "I go forwards, you go backwards, and somewhere we will meet.". This is as close to fun as Radiohead get on this album...

Climbing up the Walls begins is a fantastically spacey, total prog rock kinda way. This is what I'm talking about, and confirms Radiohead's place on a prog rock site. The cavernous space sound of Exit music is recreated, with a wonderful falling bass line. Thom's vocals are heavily distorted, confirming their place as a part of the instrumentation - sometimes it's hard to distinguish his voice from the melange of spacey sounds that proliferate. Johnny Greenwood punctuates perfectly with deeply sensitive guitar, leading to, of all things, a solo - but not one of noodle, instead, one of appropriate colouring.

No Surprises was another hit single and requires no introduction - but you might want to put some sticky tape on those neck-hairs...

Lucky is a bit of an effort to listen to to start, as No Surprises provides a perfect end to the album. However, make that effort, and Radiohead have something far more to say musically than No Surprises. Magnificently symphonic and sonically richer than much Pink Floyd or Barclay James Harvest, this is one that might take you a while to "get", due to the constant shifting in instrumental textures. Undeniably prog - it was "a glorious day" when this track was written!!! Walls of beautifully counterpointed melodies collapsing into stark textures, then rebuilt in a different form provide one of the single most organic pieces of music in rock's history. I would put this alongside "Firth of Fifth".

The Tourist made me laugh the first time I heard it. OK Computer is an album that is not exactly speed metal... overall it's more like the aural equivalent of mogadon. Then comes this track at the end of the album singing "Hey, man, slow down". Again, Radiohead use a rich symphonic texture for this, and it's hard to see how they could get any slower. But it remains on a par with the rest of the album - as soon as you scratch the surface and explore the textures, the cosmic beauty of this track, indeed, the entire album swims into view.

OK Computer really is a prog album in the true spirit.

The attention to detail is quite stunning, and is easily missed by a casual listen. Even the individual sounds made by each instrument have been carefully considered and honed so that the sound is pretty close to perfect. Melodically, harmonically, texturally, rhythimcally and formally it is one of the strongest and most consistent albums of all time. The only flaw I could find in it from a proghole's point of view is that, like Dark Side of the Moon, all the "real" experimentation lies in texture. But that all changes on Kid A...

Certif1ed | 5/5 |

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