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Radiohead - Kid A CD (album) cover

KID A

Radiohead

 

Crossover Prog

3.95 | 759 ratings

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Zargasheth
4 stars

This was actually the first album by Radiohead that I heard, and I came to it by a rather circuitous route--the only reason I heard it in the first place was because of the Punch Brothers' cover of the title track. But it turned out to be a worthwhile experience. This album is a peculiar and overall unique collection of post-rocky, poppish tracks with a gloomy, eerie atmosphere and an emphasis on bizarre experimentation. The end result is impressive and, at points, terrifying. The only outstanding flaw that could be ascribed to it is an occasional lack of energy. Even the more active songs that should be driving the album seem lifeless, and just as strange as the slower ones. The one exception is "Optimistic", one of the album's standouts for this very reason.

The opener, "Everything in Its Right Place", is another highlight. Like many of the tracks on the album, it contains very few instruments, consisting of only a clean chord progression with a barely noticeable bass pulse and Thom Yorke's voice. But the sound on which the chords are played, shifting from a muted electric-piano-like tone to a buzz in a seamlessly fluid way, is perfectly chosen. The chords themselves also are effective--almost triumphant, in a way. The piece is also peppered with electronically modified clips of the album's title and other incomprehensible phrases, while Yorke sings regularly on top.

Following this is the title track, which sounds quite similar in some ways, but the smoothly shifting chords have been replaced with plucking, bell-like tones, and supplemented with drums. Yorke's voice is also heavily modified in this piece. By becoming even more minimal, this piece ramps up the eeriness of the previous one, but it also doesn't hold my interest as easily.

After this, the band apparently decided to compensate for the sparing arrangements with "The National Anthem". A menacing, heavy bassline is soon covered up by a wailing chorus of brass instruments, which end up filling out the rest of the song. Small pieces of the resulting free-jazz meltdown are interesting, but the whole thing stretches on too long to sustain my attention, and it loses the drive that it tries to achieve at the beginning.

The album calms down again after this with "How To Disappear Completely", which is a pretty ballad on acoustic guitar which gradually gets overtaken by other ambient synth noises, string arrangements and a repetitive bassline. The melody is quite simple, but more than any other track on the disc, this one has emotional impact; it very clearly communicates a sense of melancholy. The ending, in which the strings suddenly spiral out of tune, is very effective.

After this comes an interlude in the form of "Treefingers". This track is a very slow, instrumental, and completely ambient piece, with no melody, but rather subtle shifts between bell-like tones. This gets boring very quickly for me, and while it would be ideal in the position of background music, it falls somewhat flat on its own.

Fortunately, after everything grinds to a halt with "Treefingers", the album picks up speed again with "Optimistic". It's one of the most guitar-dominated pieces on the disc, but it still keeps a droning feel throughout. The chorus breaks out of the drone with an ascending guitar pattern backed by a perfect chord progression, and gradually other sounds begin to come in over the drone and leave. What really makes this song, however, is the chord progressions--while this contains much less sonic experimentation than the rest of the album, the sound is much richer and fuller overall.

"Optimistic" suddenly turns into the totally different "In Limbo", which is almost dreamlike--it feels like two different songs being played at the same time, as the guitar and keyboard don't entirely match up. As a result, the song ends up feeling a bit cluttered, although there are times when it rises out of the chaos with a guitar line, which helps quite a bit. After a while, I also get used to the whole mishmash.

The next track, "Idioteque", is a strange piece of almost dance-like music, with electronic beats and samples from a couple of other electronic pieces, woven together in an excellent way, so that Radiohead makes it their own. The various layers involved sink out and move back in unpredictably, and the melodies added on to the samples are also good.

"Morning Bell" has little besides an electric piano line and an unusual drumbeat, both in 10/8, playing another effective melody that alternates between the conventionally gloomy mood of the album and a more upbeat style, without losing its fluidity. This piece has the droning feeling that accompanies most of the record, but it occasionally falls away from its central note in a triumphant way, accompanied by the unnerving lyric "cut the kids in half".

The album's closer, "Motion Picture Soundtrack", is a slow, ambling progression powered by an organ lead, and eventually peppered with ethereal harp glissandos and voices underneath Thom Yorke's somewhat less ethereal one. This turns out to be one of the scariest tracks on the album, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it is extremely minimal--the glissandos just seem very wrong.

But wait! Just as you're wondering whether you're going to get any sleep that night, one last hidden track comes in, consisting just of a single swell that sounds like the combination of an orchestra tuning up and a choir of angels descending. It's an amazing sound, and a fittingly unnerving actual ending to a highly unnerving album.

This is overall a very good album, and it does best when it's trying to either be atmospheric or creepy (or ideally, both--see "Motion Picture Soundtrack") Thom Yorke's voice isn't really the most pleasant to listen to, and as mentioned above the drive is sometimes lacking, but these are minor quibbles about a mysterious and sometimes disturbing album, that manages to craft amazing ambient soundscapes with usually very minimal instrumentation. Highlights include "Everything In Its Right Place", "How To Disappear Completely", and "Optimistic".

Zargasheth | 4/5 |

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