Radiohead in the Progressive Mix: The 2012 World Tour

On February 27 at the American Airlines Arena in Miami, Radiohead will kick off their 2012 World Tour.  The band will make twenty-two stops in America, Mexico, and Europe, with the final stop being at Lisbon’s Optimus Alive Fest on July 15.

If the setlists from New York City’s September 28 and 30, 2011, Roseland Ballroom shows provide any indication of what to expect from this always unpredictable band, the 2012 World Tour will feature some old songs but focus primarily on newer compositions.  At the Roseland, Radiohead performed songs from as far back as their 1995 release, The Bends (“Street Spirit (Fade Out)”) and the OK Computer (1997) classic “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” but concentrated more heavily on the elecronica-fused material of Kid A (2000) (“The National Anthem” and “Everything in Its Right Place”), the experimental recordings of the recent In Rainbows (2007), and last year’s The King of Limbs (“Nude,” “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” “Bloom,” and “Little by Little”).

In the clips that I’ve seen of Radiohead at the Roseland and on The Colbert Report, the band was most animated when they performed their post-Kid A material.  This animation should come as no shock to anyone who’s followed the band’s progress over the past decade, during which they’ve continuously challenged their audience’s expectations by producing the most experimental music in their history.  Shying away from the guitar-based approach of The Bends and OK Computer, Radiohead now experiments with new instruments, rhythms, and song structures that make complexity prominent and vocal melody secondary.  Just one example of this experimental tendency is the addition of Clive Deamer on second drums.  Take, for example, the way in which his presence adds rhythmic complexity to the songs that Radiohead performed on The Colbert Report: “Bloom,” “The National Anthem,” “Little by Little,” and “Codex” (2011).

Indeed, for at least the past decade and if not longer, the words “Radiohead” and “experimental” have been synonymous.  Fans and critics alike have praised Radiohead for their ability to remain experimental and popular at the same time.  It’s this ability that for some music lovers have put Radiohead in the pantheon of other great and popular experimenters, the Beatles and Pink Floyd, in particular.

But, when considering Radiohead’s wildly apparent need to deviate from the traditional pop song format and employ classical instruments, structures (Jonny Greenwood’s dedication to the classical composer Olivier Messiaen and one of his preferred instruments, the ondes Martenot, comes to mind, as well as his classical musical scores for the films Bodysong (2003), There Will Be Blood (2007), Norwegian Wood (2010), and We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011)), and now two drummers, why haven’t they been seen as prominent members of the progressive rock tradition?

Progressive rock is a genre that many rock critics and some fans dismiss, despite the undisputed popularity of older bands such as Pink Floyd and Rush, newbies such as Muse and the Mars Volta, and acts such as Neutral Milk Hotel and Sufjan Stevens that employ progressive rock elements in their folk-tinged recordings.

Now, as an indie rock fan that went to college during the height of the alternative nation’s power in the early-to-mid 1990s, the very words “progressive rock” were anathema to me.  When I heard the words “progressive rock,” images of Tolkien-esque hordes of dwarves invaded my mind and picked away slowly but steadily at my indie credibility and intelligence.  I had horrific visions of Yes taking the stage to the strains of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1914), before each band member would take his turn to solo self-indulgently, seemingly only to prolong the agony of listening to twenty-minute songs with laughable titles, such as “The Revealing Science of God (Dance of the Dawn).”

But, as I grew older and more curious about the history of rock and roll, I knew that I had to deal with prog.  It was always easy for me to dismiss contemporary prog bands such as Muse because, from their Storm Thorgerson-designed album covers of Absolution (2003) and Black Holes and Revelations (2006) to their bombastic “Exogenesis: Symphony” on their album The Resistance (2009), they seemed to revel in their copycat allegiance to Pink Floyd, Genesis, ELO, ELP, and, yes, Yes.

Despite my reservations about Muse and their brethren, I went online, performed various Google searches on “progressive rock,” and came upon a prog page, New Music Express, which listed Classic Rock Magazine’s ten essential progressive rock albums of the 2000s. Radiohead’s Kid A (2000) made the list, right alongside Muse’s Black Holes and Revelations.

I had to reassess.  Radiohead – and Kid A in particular – had always been the epitome of anti-prog and indie credibility for me.  The band had always cited post-punk bands such as the Smiths, Pixies, and R.E.M. as their major influences, took their name from a Talking Heads’ song, and, on Kid A and Amnesiac (2001), demonstrated frontman Thom Yorke’s fascination with the electronic experimenters Kraftwerk, Aphex Twin, and Björk.

Additionally, Radiohead possessed a progressive political conscience that contrasted sharply with the apolitical, pseudo-philosophical lyrics of most prog rock bands.  Radiohead’s commitment to progressive politics included their strong promotion of human rights and Tibetan freedom.  Their fervent opposition to global warming, childhood labor, and corporate greed in the record industry differed from contemporary prog rock bands such as the Mars Volta, whose concept album Frances the Mute (2003) – another record that made Classic Rock’s top ten list – concerned the quest of a mentally-ill and adopted person’s attempt to find his birth parents.

For me Radiohead’s stated influences and political commitments gave them indie credibility, whereas the Mars Volta’s apolitical lyrics made them seem pretentious and, therefore, unworthy of my attention as an indie rock fan and intelligent person.  I was all too willing to agree with Pitchfork that Frances the Mute deserved a 2.0/10.0 rating because it was “a homogeneous shitheap of stream-of-consciousness turgidity.”  I also gladly accepted Pitchfork’s granting of Kid A a perfect 10.0/10.0 score and OK Computer the crown for best album of the 1990s.

But when I actually listened to Frances the Mute for myself, I was at first very confused.  Cognitive dissonance definitely set in.  I admit that the storyline didn’t come through at all on that first listen, but I was drawn to the music by its sheer revolutionary nature.  I had never before come across a record that had so intensely combined free jazz, dub, ambient, electronica, and Latin, as well as psychedelic, punk, and experimental rock.  The first song alone, “Cygnus…Vismund Cygnus,” sounded like an amalgamation of Ascension-era Coltrane (1965), early Santana (1969-1972), Damaged-era Black Flag (1981), and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (1973) and Animals (1977).

My unexpected adoration of Frances the Mute forced me to rethink my response to Kid A.  True, Radiohead’s album is more openly socially engaged than Frances the Mute, especially on tracks such as “Everything in Its Right Place” and “Idioteque,” which display a paranoiac attitude toward systems of control.  But the album isn’t political in the sense that it blames specific organizations for the paranoia that Yorke’s characters exhibit; rather, it creates an unsettling atmosphere of paranoia that dominates the listening experience.  And it’s precisely this atmosphere that makes the record still relevant today.

The Mars Volta on Frances the Mute takes Radiohead’s paranoia and personalizes it.  Yorke’s characters, like Mars Volta singer and lyricist Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s, all feel lost in an unfriendly and hostile world and engage in a search for meaning.  Bixler-Zavala’s parentless protagonist repeatedly asks in “Cygnus…Vismund Cygnus,” “Who do you trust?” because he suffers from abandonment in a world of “Umbilical syllables / Left to decode.”  Yorke’s protagonist in “Idioteque” suffers from the same sense of meaninglessness and confusion when he howls to an uncomprehending world such jumbled apocalyptic lines as “Ice age coming,” “We’re not scaremongering,” and “This is really happening.”

Kid A and Frances the Mute also share a common musical sensibility that derives from the concept of the mash up.  I’ve already indicated how this sensibility drives the Mars Volta’s musical experiments.  It’s also the backbone of Radiohead’s accomplishment on Kid A and their recent albums, In Rainbows and The King of Limbs.  Take, for example, the song “The National Anthem.”  Colin Greenwood’s bass and Phil Selway’s drums provide dance rhythms, perhaps owing to Yorke’s engagement with European electronic dance music, over which Jonny Greenwood adds the eerie wavering notes of an ondes Martenot.  After the dance rhythms and ondes Martenot parts stop, “The National Anthem” crashes to an end with a horn section’s improvisational burst of atonal noise, which reminds the listener of Ornette Coleman’s, John Coltrane’s, and others’ free jazz experiments of the 1960s.

“The National Anthem” shows Radiohead at the height of their progressive rock abilities.  It combines elements of European electronic dance music, experimental classical music, free jazz, and rock and roll to create an entirely new, revolutionary, and, yes, progressive listening experience.

When Radiohead showcases their post-Kid A material – and, especially, their recent music from In Rainbows and The King of Limbs – on their 2012 World Tour, they will demonstrate their prominent place in the progressive mix, kinship with the Mars Volta and Muse, and the inspiration that they received from classic prog bands such as Pink Floyd.

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