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Radiohead - The Bends CD (album) cover




Crossover Prog

3.82 | 655 ratings

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5 stars "You can force it but it will not come." "Everything is broken".

And so Radiohead went into the studio to attempt to produce something that might eclipse the hugely anthemic "Creep" from their debut, and both failed and succeeded.

There is nothing on "The Bends" that is quite as immediate, infectious or full of the late 1990s "Alternative Rock" flavours as "Creep" - so that is the failure.

There is no filler on "The Bends", however, and the songs are written imaginatively, the lyrics are written thoughtfully, and the music itself is daringly experimental for the scene it grew out of. While there are no long tracks, improvisations or even Roger Dean covers, there are 12 songs that are texturally and stylistically very different from each other.

As with the proverbial onion, there are so many layers in here that it would be pointless listening once or twice and coming to the conclusion that it's an onion - especially without peeling away at the layers first. That would be to miss out on all the really good stuff inside.

Radiohead pushed the envelope in all directions, and succeeded in producing a Progressive Alt-Rock album of a quality so high, in terms of songwriting, arrangement and attention to detail in the production that it surely must appeal to anyone that appreciates the finer points in rock music. The music lives on in the inspiration it has given to so many other guitar-based bands - although not as ubiquitously as the ensuing masterpiece, "OK Computer".

The opening spacey keyboards of "Planet Telex" tell you immediately that this is not your standard guitar-band stuff. The reverb-drenched, driving rhythm that follows has an immediacy that is extremely engaging, and when the full-on, fat bass kicks in, tighter than a tight thing in Tightsville, you can really feel the band getting a groove going. But then the band cut across it, just as you're really getting into it, with delayed, angular guitar alternating subtly between minor and major to give the disturbing feeling of a key base being kicked away from underneath you. We end the same way we began with a coda based around the short mantra "Why can't you forget", with some stunning melodic ideas from Johnny G. This coda-style ending would become prevalent on OK Computer (e,g, "Paranoid Android", "Karma Police") and is an important feature of Radiohead's evolving and progressive sound.

"The Bends" begins with a Radio playing, then crashes into a far less spacey and more raucous style that plays with rhythm, starts and stops, cross rhythms and complete changes - Phil Selway putting in some really tasty licks. Thom shows off a wide variety of vocal styles, including a quasi-rap "Just lying in the bar with my drip feed on Talking to my girlfriend, waiting for something to happen. I wish it was the sixties, I wish I could be happy, I wish, I wish, I wish that something would happen".

"High and Dry"is the first of the hit singles from this album, and is dedicated by the band to "older people, who don't like loud music" (source: It's a very well written song, with strong melodies, a rich acoustic guitar backing and clean, melodic guitar lines - a HiFi fanatics wet dream really, as each instrumental part has meticulous care lavished upon it. Enjoy this one for the melodies, but listen to the rich textures and you'll get even more out of this song.

Another single follows; "Fake Plastic Trees" begins with a slow acoustic entry, later joined by drifting synth pads, rich Hammonds and Mellotrons, while Thom croons beautifully, using his delicate falsetto - the whole combining to produce some outstanding timbres that almost make the song itself seem irrelevant. This is not a pop song, it is a sonic work of art. You must not be in a hurry to judge it :o)

Another contradictory texture change starts "Bones", and Thom sings closer to the mike with a much fuller vocal sound, while Johnny G "does a Latimer", squeezing every last drop of emotion from a single note. Shredders, take note - this is how it's done! The chorus is bone-crunching and angst-ridden - the fear of getting old is well represented in this chunky rocker, but the tag line "You've got to feel it in your bones" could equally apply to the music.

"Nice Dream" begins with a nicely dreamy acoustic guitar - in fact, all the instrumental layers go for the onamatapaeic approach. Another thing of beauty from the Radiohead guys that has flavours of Prog Rock all over it - but also real invention, especially where it picks up and intensifies around 2:30. It must be remembered that this is not Prog of the 1970s, but of the 1990s - and the rules are where you find them.

"Just" is, on the surface, another Alt-Rock anthem, but it twists and turns around some extremely angular key-changes before launching into the hard-rockin', singalong chorus. It's the developing instrumental bridge that is the centerpiece here - real jewel.

The opening hard-flanged guitar of "My Iron Lung" sets the scene perfectly - a really progressive rock song full of anger - apparently about Radiohead being pulled from the Reading festival because they didn't have more songs like "Creep". Indeed not - they had loads better. "Suck, suck your teenage thumb, Toilet trained and dumb - When the power runs out We'll just hum. This, this is our new song, Just like the last one, A total waste of time. My Iron Lung". Needless to say by now, this is a fantastic song with stunning and colourful textures, winding, inventive melodies, intriguing instrumental interplay and counterpoint, sharply shifting harmonies and driving, insistent rhythms with pointed accents in exactly the right places and above all, a chorus more raucous than raucous ought sensibly to be, in a deeply bitter and caustic way.

The delicate textures of "Bullet Proof" are yet more evidence that Radiohead had become far more than just another Alt Rock band. This song is not a ballad, and it must be pointed out that Radiohead have never written a ballad, since a ballad narrates a story - and Radiohead's songs tend to encapsulate feelings about a situation or event in a portraitive manner hardly ever dipping into narrative.

The rich complexities of the choruses of "Black Star", framed by sparse verses with beautiful build-ups make for a very satisfying and engaging listen, but "Sulk" gives the first hint of things to come in "Kid A" with its stunning inventiveness. It's really difficult to hear the verses of this song and not thing Prog Rock - although the choruses are strongly anthemic. It's an uncomfortable juxtaposition that only goes to underscore just how experimental Radiohead were at this phase in their career.

The album closes with the utterly perfect "Street Spirit (Fade Out)", a song that defies definition and categorisation, but instead sits as a testament to Radiohead's abilities to write classic songs with longevity in mind rather than pure "hits". The immediacy of this song belies its capacity for repeated enjoyment on the part of the listener.

When I approached this review, I was quite prepared to award 4 stars, denying its status as a masterpiece of Prog, but instead recommending it as an Excellent addition to a Prog collection - which it is.

However, having strapped the cans on and listened with my reviewing ears switched on, I am truly moved to wonderment at the amount of stuff I've missed on this album, despite owning it for 10 years or so now.

Hence it snatches that coveted 5th star from my grasp - it's not in the same vein as any of the Prog Rock classics, but then Prog Rock is not a particular style. This album doesn't even have an overall concept that I can make out - but it is created as a work of art rather than a simple rock album, with intense attention to detail and a wide palette of individual and original ideas that mingle satisfyingly with the older ones.

Yep, it's a masterpiece of Prog for the 1990s alright - I would recommend it to proggers above the offerings from, say, Porcupine Tree, the Flower Kings and even Marillion from this time (although maybe not Spock's Beard!). Although all released fine albums between 1995-6, the music does not approach the daring and finely crated sonic sculptures on offer here.

Small wonder that Radiohead felt that they were being overlooked after they released this album. True quality is so easy to miss if you don't know what you're looking for.

Certif1ed | 5/5 |


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