Radiohead just released a new single for the first time in years. It’s called Burn The Witch and it honestly gives me some hope for the forthcoming album.
Radiohead used to be my favorite band – on earth, living or dead, all-time favorites. When I first got really into them around the turn of the century, they released a pair of albums that changed the direction of rock music in a considerable way. Kid A and Amnesiac opened the door for the mainstream embrace of electronic, jazz, and other non-rock influences in an ostensibly rock context. They weren’t remotely the first band to do this, but they were the first ones to popularize it in such a massive way. Songs like Idioteque made it okay for indie kids like me to spazz out with lasers and fog machines, while tunes like Treefingers introduced a whole new generation to ambient music in the mold of Brian Eno. The band wove bits of krautrock and free jazz into these songs, helping plant the seeds for my future tastes – tastes that have almost nothing to do with standard rock music anymore.
After that initial burst of creativity, bringing down the walls of corporate rock around them, the band seemed listless and unsure of where to go next. The three albums released in the 15 years since have seen Radiohead progressively stripping their ambitions down, honing a signature electronic-rock feel, and simply crafting some quality tunes. There’s nothing wrong with not breaking the mold every time, but they set a lot of fans and critics up for disappointment regardless. I still enjoyed the music, but it was nowhere near the best thing I’d heard during any given year.
Now we come to 2016 and a mysterious new album that’s coming this June. With the way the band seemed to fade from productive life after 2011’s understated-to-the-point-of-forgettable The King Of Limbs, I had the feeling that they’d only come roaring back if they really had something new to say. While this first song isn’t exactly a revolution, it’s a distinctly fresh wrinkle to their sound. Singer Thom Yorke’s voice is crystalline and soaring as always, the percussion still rings with the nimble spirit of Can‘s Jaki Liebezeit, and the warm backing melody brings just enough of a familiar draw for new ears. What stands out to me is the ragged string plucking that leads the way into and out of the meat of the tune, a clear contribution from Jonny Greenwood’s recent forays into film scoring. Specifically, it recalls the nervous center of There Will Be Blood, a tune called Proven Lands. This is a heightened, anxious presence that adds a sense of grandiosity, while remaining free of the clichéd feeling that comes when most bands add an orchestra, going all the way back to Led Zeppelin’s epic Kashmir.
The video is a fun amalgamation of childhood Rankin-Bass fever dreams and cult classic 1973 Hammer Films cult classic The Wicker Man. No Nic Cage, no bees; all unnervingly cheery stop-motion animation and fire.
All in all, it feels like the best possible outcome for a new single. The band sounds energized and forward-looking. Historically, this is the where they’ve made their most impactful music. I’ve got hope that this year will bring a truly interesting Radiohead album for the first time in over a decade.