Radiohead – The King of Limbs: First review

On first listen, Radiohead's The King of Limbs sounds like it will impress the faithful without breaking any new ground

Radiohead's release schedule is not, you imagine, geared towards helping music critics. Minimal warnings, last-minute changes of plan and confusing announcements posted on Twitter in Japanese – does Thom Yorke not realise we have tight deadlines? The end result is a mad-rush by critics, bloggers and Tweet-freaks to be first to post their opinion on The King of Limbs' eight tracks. Trouble is, Radiohead don't make music designed for a hurried listen. A couple more plays down the line and the opinions you read here may be subject to change.

The King of Limbs begins in a manner that will no doubt make both Radiohead fans and critics smile – a looped piano riff reminiscent of Philip Glass is interrupted by crackly interference before disjointed rhythms and bleeps cascade over it. It's an abstract, awkward introduction of the sort that has become so synonymous with the Oxford band that Vice magazine felt able to send them up this week with a spoof "first review" (sample line: "P£T£R P£PP£R is Thom Yorke's deeply personal reaction to the events of the banking crisis, while Johnny Greenwood plays a timpani with a zither").

Still, bands don't become stadium-sized cult heroes if they're nothing more than avant-garde soundscapers. And 30 seconds into Bloom, the track shuffles itself around and falls into place, haphazard noises settling down into a repetitive drum march as Thom Yorke announces himself.

There is much here that will please the 'Head faithful, who will delight in the claustrophobic likes of Morning Mr Magpie and Little By Little. But you don't have to be a diehard fan to see the worth in Codex, a beautiful melody brought into focus by the band's decision to dispense of the usual trimmings in favour of piano and ghostlike effects. Closing track Separator – propelled by wandering bass and a bright guitar figure – ensures the album closes far more strongly than it opens.

These songs occupy an emotional terrain that Radiohead have mapped out as their own and – to their credit – others have failed to copy. What's disappointing, however, is that the band – so often held up as musical mavericks operating in the mainstream – have failed to come up with anything that might surprise us this time. Early albums such as The Bends, OK Computer and Kid A carved out a radical new direction. Since then Radiohead have settled into a sound – abstract lyrics, jittery rhythms, echoes of leftfield electronica – meaning that this teeters on the brink of self-parody.

Their last album, 2007's In Rainbows, was perhaps the best of Radiohead's later releases, incorporating a more human (not to mention melodic) touch. Any hints that some light and shade was beginning to appear in the Radiohead canon have been largely snuffed out here, which is disappointing. Yes, you can still marvel that one of the world's biggest bands are releasing music totally lacking in commercial concerns. And yes, they're still leading the pack when it comes to releasing music in an exciting, innovative way. But whereas their business model is unusual, there's a nagging feeling that The King of Limbs is more like business as usual.


Tim Jonze

The GuardianTramp

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