In the second album by the Smile, after three songs, Thom Yorke expresses his frustration. He sings, “It takes away, it takes the fun out,” accompanied by a sharp guitar riff in Read the Room. This may not come as a surprise to those familiar with Yorke’s songwriting. His lyrics have long explored a bleak emotional terrain of fear, anger, despair, and apathy. This is evident in Wall of Eyes, where restless songs convey a sense of looming dread and mention of something terrible happening just off-camera (“Don’t let them take me,” “Stop looking over our shoulder”). One track is even titled I Quit. The topics are often indirect (the title track’s protagonist could be an oligarch or tech billionaire; the “user” who blocks Yorke’s light in You Know Me! could be a leech, critic, or someone else entirely), but the overall mood remains consistent. There is one particularly unlikely moment in Bending Hectic, where Yorke describes driving through the Italian countryside in a vintage car from the 60s. However, this is short-lived as the song soon delves into dark thoughts of self-destruction reminiscent of J.G. Ballard’s writing. Ultimately, the album returns to its familiar tone.
Whatever it is that Yorke can’t be arsed with, it’s clearly not music. Indeed, it’s hard to think of any major rock artists who are evidently more arsed than him and Radiohead’s other members. It’s nearly eight years since their last album, A Moon-Shaped Pool, the longest gap in their career. But the interval has been filled with a torrent of solo projects, film scores, contemporary classical pieces, remixes, activism and two albums by the Smile, which unites Yorke and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood with Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner.
The release of A Light for Attracting Attention in 2021 marked The Smile’s debut for the year. This left some people questioning the future of Radiohead, as the band’s two most well-known members presented a collection of songs that drew from Radiohead’s unreleased material – including “Open the Floodgates” and “Skirting on the Surface” – and had a similar sound to Radiohead. One could appreciate the band’s swing and experimental style, which revealed drummer Skinner’s jazz background, and also pondered what The Smile was bringing to the table that Radiohead couldn’t.
Maybe the solution is more psychological than artistic. Like their previous album, it’s difficult to label Wall of Eyes as anything other than reminiscent of Radiohead. However, despite the heavy atmosphere of unease and darkness, there is a certain sense of comfort throughout much of the album. This could be attributed to Yorke and Greenwood creating music without the pressure and significance that comes with every Radiohead release. (Even the music video for the single “Burn the Witch” from A Moon-Shaped Pool was interpreted by some as a commentary on nativism.)
The title track and Teleharmonic feature lovely chord sequences and subtle Latin rhythms. Friend of a Friend has a relaxed charm reminiscent of early 70s singer-songwriter albums, with a beautiful tune that is reminiscent of McCartney’s style. However, it is contrasted by eerie, discordant strings that give a horror movie-like feel. I Quit follows a similar structure to songs in Radiohead’s back catalogue, with a drifting melody and a bassline that drives the song forward. However, it also includes a stunning orchestral arrangement that adds to its beauty.
The music is inventive, but still has a natural feel to it. The only track that seems to be trying too hard is “Under Our Pillows,” as it switches between complex guitar riffs, dark ambiance, and a motorik pulse without truly evoking an emotional response. Despite the use of electronic effects, such as the glitching sampled guitar in “I Quit” and the ghostly synth tones in “Teleharmonic,” Wall of Eyes retains the sound of a live band playing together, emphasized by Skinner’s impressive drumming skills. This is particularly evident on “Read the Room,” where Skinner’s sudden and extravagant fills disrupt the laid-back breakbeat and almost push the track towards chaos, creating a sense that the rhythm could be lost at any moment.
The opening track of the album, “Bending Hectic,” is a bold and exploratory piece that immediately grabs the listener’s attention. The song begins with a folky fingerpicked pattern reminiscent of Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” but it quickly breaks down and sounds as if someone is messing with the guitar’s tuning pegs. The rhythm then shifts into a slow-motion shuffle and the melody soars for a few minutes before abruptly stopping. In its place, a wall of screaming strings takes over, reminiscent of The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” and the soundtrack to Psycho. The song then transitions into a distorted and unsettling guitar-driven section. This combination of sounds is both imaginative and electrifying, making it one of the most impressive contributions from Yorke and Greenwood in the past decade. The track, along with the rest of the album, does not feel like a filler or placeholder, but rather stands on its own merit. It remains to be seen what this means for Radiohead’s future, if anything, but one thing is certain: the quality of this album is undeniable.
The release date for Wall of Eyes is 26 January 2018.
This week, Alexis tuned in to a presentation.
The song “Inclination” by Steven Wilson has been remixed by Ewan Pearson.
Ewan Pearson adds a touch of sunny Balearic euphoria to the remixes of songs from Wilson’s latest album, The Harmony Codex, which feature collaborations with artists such as Manic Street Preachers and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.