Friday, June 29, 2012

The Box

Starting out as one of the innumerable acid-house rave acts of the late 1980s, techno-dance pioneers Orbital eventually embraced a more ambitious sensibility, incorporating a revolutionary punk-rock spirit into their basic aesthetic, and allowing their music to evolve into a more immediate, visceral proposition, as proven admirably in their many high-octane, energetic live performances at key events like Glastonbury, Woodstock '94 and Tribal Gathering. This radical sonic innovation also resulted in a host of critically lauded, artistically accomplished albums, and a clutch of acclaimed singles that scored high on the European charts. Check out one of Orbital's most musically consummate singles, the gloriously moody, epically orchestral 'The Box', which bristles with skittish breakbeats, menacing synth swoops and overlaid with an insistent spy flick-inspired harpsichord riff. It also receives an similarly elaborate video-clip treatment, starring Tilda Swinton as a jumpy yet curious extraterrestrial exploring the humdrum of daily urban life in a desolate, sprawling metropolis, incognito and in a slow-motion manner.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


Progressing from their early, formless guitar-pop days to the sweeping, experimental epics of their latter guise, Radiohead has undoubtedly undergone the most striking evolution of any band in the British music landscape of the 1990s. Known unflatteringly as "the band with the 'Creep' song" in their early days, Radiohead later did some serious bootstrapping and transformed themselves into one of the most important British rock acts of today. They were also instrumental in bringing prog-rock back to mass acceptance, but their brand of sweeping prog-rock was leavened by defiant, uncompromising experimentation and a healthy dose of angst and paranoia. This sensibility is manifested perfectly in landmark albums like 'The Bends' and 'OK Computer', both of which have helped to cement their name amongst the ranks of bona fide rock royalty. Other albums, while not as monumental as those two, have also aided in putting their name on the musical map. Therefore, it's an immensely, invariably satisfying exercise to go through the Oxford collective's stellar back catalogue.

Radiohead took their baby steps into the business with a rather inchoate, underdeveloped debut that mostly comprised identical-sounding, snotty-nosed, half-hearted rockers like 'Stop Whispering', 'Anyone Can Play Guitar' and 'Thinking About You'. However, it does contain the career-making loser's anthem 'Creep', a superior slice of musical self-loathing that actually made many top ten charts in 1993.

THE BENDS (1995)
The astonishing, form-finding sophomore effort had the band doing some serious bootstrapping, shocking those pointy-headed music critics who had initially written them off as purveyors of formless guitar-pop. Relatively radio-friendly and anthemic tracks like 'High and Dry', 'Fake Plastic Trees' and 'Just' became high-placing chart singles, propelling Radiohead to the giddy heights of rock superstardom. Mention should also be made of the ghostly 'Street Spirit (Fade Out)', which was the first real indicator of the unnerving Gothic ballads that the band would excel at in their latter days.

The band's indisputable magnum opus and most artistically realised work. This twelve-song masterpiece was a brilliant, awe-inspiring mixture of classic prog-rock, space-rock, trip-hop, post-punk and guitar-rock, armed with an astonishing number of hitherto undiscovered sonic textures. The syncopated, multi-part 'Paranoid Android' was the big single from here, although the mockingly blissful 'No Surprises', the paranoiac 'Karma Police' and the snarling, roaring 'Airbag' also made significant ripples on charts everywhere. Meanwhile, the despairing 'Exit Music (For a Film)' remains the band's most accomplished Gothic ballad, and the despairing 'The Tourist' is the band's highly disturbing vision of earthly and personal apocalypse.

KID A (2000)
Fans who were expecting a second instalment of 'OK Computer' were genuinely thrown by this. Experimental electronica was the order of the day here, with sub-genres like IDM, glitch, Kraut-rock and ambient coming into active play. This resulted in decidedly leftfield but strangely engaging tunes like 'The National Anthem', 'Everything in Its Right Place' and 'How to Disappear Completely' becoming unexpected fan favourites, with the aggressive, drum n' bass-infused 'Idioteque' being a particular highlight of the set.

A continuation of the forbidding electronic sonics of 'Kid A', albeit with more defined song forms. The theatrical 'Pyramid Song' revels in string-swept dramatics, while the Smiths-influenced electric-guitar workout 'Knives Out' is a return of sorts to the heydays of 'The Bends'. Elsewhere, 'Life in a Glasshouse' is the band's unorthodox take on a New Orleans funeral march, while 'You and Whose Army' is a twisted blend of folktronica and modal jazz.

A return of sorts to the guitar pyrotechnics of 'The Bends' and the cinematic prog-rock of 'OK Computer', although there is still a fair amount of experimental electronics at work here. It's also the most musically varied of all of the band's works. '2 + 2 = 5' abounds with some reasonable battleaxe guitar wielding, while 'There There' is a pounding, percussion-led paranoia anthem. The electronically inclined experiments here include 'The Gloaming', 'Sit Down, Stand Up' and 'Backdrifts', but 'Sail to the Moon' and 'I Will' are piano-based ballads that provide lulling breathers in the midst of the sonic cacophony.

The adventurism of the last few efforts has largely been eschewed here in favour of the more disciplined rock textures of the golden era, although there is still a fair amount of experimentation here. Things like '15 Step', 'Bodysnatchers' and 'House of Cards' are all competent guitar-rockers, while 'Arpeggi' and 'Faust Arp' are defiantly abstract electronic creatures. The band also found time to indulge in their perennial love of Goth-tinged ballads, both in the mournful 'Nude' and the carefully orchestrated 'All I Need'.

Quietly sprung upon an unsuspecting public, this relatively short release (at a mere 37 minutes) recapitulates the eerie electronica-based textures of the post-millennium works, but without the attendant sense of foreboding and dread. A more cohesive ambience is also apparent here, with tracks like the pattering, percussion-filled 'Morning Mr. Magpie', the placid, acoustic-guitar ballad 'Give Up the Ghost' and the solemn, piano-led 'Codex' being some of the more obvious highlights. The ostensible lead single 'Lotus Flower' (whose video features an unintentionally hilarious Thom Yorke doing a deadpan vaudeville-like impression) supplies the album's accessibility quotient, with its slinky, synthesised R&B groove.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Someone You Need

A professional artistic collaboration between 1980s synth-pop luminary Howard Jones and modern-day introspective-pop purveyor Duncan Sheik might seem like a highly unlikely proposition, but the duo really did come together in 2003 for a low-key but fruitful, albeit one-off partnership. The improbable association engendered the cautiously optimistic  ballad 'Someone You Need', which sounded like something that Nick Drake would do in this day and age, if the legendary troubadour was still alive and making music. Check out a live rendition of this poised and empathic hymn to unrequited love by the dynamic duo.