Written by 4:40 am Audiophile Music

Radiohead’s Moon Shaped Reflecting Pool

Mark Smotroff dives into the new Radiohead trip…


I didn’t want to listen to the new Radiohead album for the first time via the free stream that came out in May… Nor did I want to review the album based solely on a download… Radiohead is too important a band to make any sort of judgement based on a lower resolution source.  No…  instead, I waited until my vinyl pressing arrived last week (in late June) so I could get the full experience in as full fidelity manner as possible.   

Thus my review is appearing here sometime in July… so be it…

AR-RHcover225.jpgPerhaps the first thing I noticed while listening to A Moon Shaped Pool was the decided absence of sounds that might go “beep” or “boop” or “bloop” or “pffft” …. sonic textures I’d grown to expect from Radiohead by now… 

In a way it was inevitable this would happen. I mean… consider…. what would you do if most every band / artist in the world consciously (or unconsciously) co-opted your 21st Century super futuristic production flavors (Kid A to King of Limbs)… sounds that you began to explore when every band/artist in the world co-opted your previous production flavor du jour (ie. OK Computer)?  

Sampling. Industrial noise. Compressed whispers. Micro edits. Chopped up sounds. Songs that begin quietly before erupting into something epic. Unexpected stops and starts. 

All more or less abandoned for this album… 

Fare thee well, glitchy glamour … 

Long live the glitch…

But seriously, what does an artist do when your cutting edge has become somewhat mainstream?

Where do you turn for artistic influence? 

Some might say:  go back to the beginning, revisit your roots!

Others might say: go back to an era before you were born!

Yet others still might urge: do both! 

I lean toward that latter perspective….

Purely by coincidence as I am writing this (on Monday, June 27th into Tuesday, June 28th, for those who are counting) I happened to notice Brian Eno’s Twitter-feed post of one of his “Oblique Strategies” of the day. Oblique Strategies started out as a series of thought provoking cards (according to the Wiki):  “created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt and first published in 1975. Each card offers a challenging constraint intended to help artists (particularly musicians) break creative blocks by encouraging lateral thinking.”

So Eno’s card that came up on my computer screen at the exact moment I am writing this section of the review read: “Use an old idea.”

And you know what, Dear Readers? That provides the absolute perfect springboard for me to make my little transition to some Eno-flavored observations I have about this new Radiohead album.

While A Moon Shaped Pool sounds fresh for Radiohead in many ways — and a logical step from where they have been — to my ear the music here sounds somewhat informed by sounds that came before Radiohead was born.  

One of the first sonic flavors that perked up my spot-the-influence ear was the Eno-esque murky treated keyboards and overall humid ambiance to the recording.

There is not a lot of raw electric guitar on A Moon Shaped Pool. Its almost like they went back to Eno’s seminal ambient albums from the 1970s for inspiration. Recordings such as Another Green World and some of Eno’s Ambient series come to mind.  

Almost…

They hinted at some of this kind of thing before on earlier albums… 

But then came these nifty and curious orchestral moments on A Moon Shaped Pool… moments which got me thinking about Eno’s seminal Discreet Music album.

I’m sure there were other touchstones and/or possibly different ones than Eno; so I’m not saying A Moon Shaped Pool IS solely influenced by Eno. 

But, just possibly…. leveraging sounds and techniques from an earlier, pre-sequenced era…

AR-RadioheadMoonShapedPoolGatefold225.jpgConsider a track like “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief” for example with its big Lennon-esque (ala the Imagine album) strings and burbling rhythms… that leads into a haunting Harold Budd-esque treated piano sequence of the album closer, “True Love Waits.” 

“The Numbers” features rocking orchestra string sections that seem to pay homage to Paul Buckmaster’s stunning arrangements for Elton John circa 1971 (think “Madman Across The Water”). This song also reminds me of no less than Neil Young on his first solo album from 1968. 

Really. 

The chords and the interplay of the bass and acoustic guitar riffs remind me — albeit, loosely — of parts of Neil’s “The Old Laughing Lady” in particular.  

“Ful Stop” (last song on Side B) makes me think of Eno’s work with trumpeter Jon Hassell (check out his Fourth World, Vol. 1 : Possible Musics to get an idea of what I mean), perhaps by way of Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy (this even more so on some live versions of the song I’ve seen on videos from the current tour up on YouTube)

]]>These sounds are a far cry from the explosive modern prog rock of OK Computer or the cut up new millennium glory of Kid A and Amnesiac. If anything, the music on this album is something of a continuation of the haunting flavor of songs like “Give Up The Ghost” on 2011’s King of Limbs.

AR-RadioheadMoonShapedPoolLabel225.jpgThe first single and perhaps the most rocking track on the album, “Burn The Witch” features a repetitive orchestral signature that recalls at once Philip Glass and XTC (Skylarking and Apple Venus eras).  According to the Wiki, the string and choral vocal arrangements are by guitarist Johnny Greenwood (who has himself done a lot of soundtrack work over the years outside of Radiohead).  

Some of the songs are actually older tunes the band has worked on over the years but never finding a satisfactory arrangement. Album closer “True Love Waits” was first performed in 1995 and was included on a live EP. “Identikit” was performed on Austin City Limits in 2012 and “Ful Stop” was broken out on that tour as well. So this is a new album but it includes older songs that have been evolving over the years…

For the most part I am pleased with the limited edition white vinyl UK pressing of the album I ordered from the band’s website. The thick 180-gram vinyl is almost completely dead quiet (end of Side D seemed to have a some noises happening but that may just be the sound of the actual recording — I haven’t had time to compare the download to the LP.

Speaking of which, the album comes with a download in your choice of MP3 or WAV formats — I chose the WAV which is larger but hopefully sounds better. As digital music files go, these sound just find. I was not hearing any real tell tale problems of harshness, even when I turned the amplifier up loud while playing the download. 

I really like this new Radiohead album.  I’m not sure if A Moon Shaped Pool is the album the more rock oriented fans wanted from Radiohead right now… but I sure do like it a whole bunch.  But as you can ascertain from my reflections above, I like music that has many layers, influences and textures. For me, some of my favorite recordings are the ones that mix things up and offer contrasts that make you think. 

AR-RadioheadMoonShapedPoolPlaying225.jpegA Moon Shaped Pool is a great album full of such fine musical reflections…. I’m sure there are lyrical reflections I’ll pull out as I dig deeper into the recording. 

Even in the gatefold LP cover the trippy psychedelic silhouettes face one another — mirror images from alternate universes.

There are no doubt other aural reflections from days of future past (yeah, I had to sneak that in… for those of you who are paying attention)

Take a dive into A Moon Shaped Pool. Its an enveloping trip and the water’s warm ‘n lovely.

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