15th Oct 2007. Accompanying the review below, I've made a generative remix of Radiohead's 15 step. I'm placing two outputs of my program here as a free download without DRM (just like their album). I could have posted one remix a minute; the cease and desist order never came... So two 160 kbps mp3 versions here enclosed:
In Rainbows, review by Nick Collins, 15 Oct 2007
(Originally appeared in a Sonic Arts Network newsletter)
With the online release of In Rainbows, Radiohead have cut straight to the heart of the moral dilemma of downloading, and whilst they might not be the first band to investigate the honour system, they are the most high profile challenge so far to the outdated distribution models of the major record companies. As a number of commentators in press and blog coverage have pointed out in the week since the 10 Oct, they are hardly starting out an unknown band, and found little difficulty in raising public awareness of the release; their high profile was built over many years with A&R support. Indeed, the expense of marketing is what will most likely keep major players dominant in the music industry. That is, unless we get used to paying nothing for recordings, which as mp3s have proved for years, are curiously intangible fare once you stop worrying about packaging. Perhaps there is some hope for a return to live music, where musicians are highly valued as performers, and we tidy away all the concept albums littering our lives. With so many million home recording musicians around -- populating vast territories of MySpace, releasing more tracks each week than spare lifetime is available for listening -- comes the realisation that the professionals are not quite so distinct in quality as the marketing machine might lead you to believe.
So an extremely exposed Radiohead are on view, covered only by a 50MB zip file. Fortunately for them, the critical reaction has been rather good, with few dissenters. Yet in covering a few issues from the perspective of more experimental music, I'm afraid I'm going to hold back from an all out endorsement.
As befits the near naked release, many of the arrangements on the album are minimal. Understatement is a key component of their work, since a putatively five piece guitar band might be expected to make so much more obvious a sound. They have a great deal of experience in reconciling the needs of a variety of sound sources, from voices, drum kits, pianos, samples, guitars and fx pedals through analogue synthesisers (including electronic instruments such as the ondes martinot) to those nice computers (witness the granular synthesis on 15 step). Influences from atmospheric rock to electronic minimalism might be cited. How much credit is due to long term production collaborator Nigel Godrich (Spike Stent only lasting one spring) we shall never know. Indeed, the trail of influence is an impossible task, even as Faust Arp might nod to Nick Drake, Jigsaw Falling Into Place to PJ Harvey and the 7th chord arpeggios of Weird Fishes_Arpeggi to a diatonic harmony class held at Warp Records. Anyone plagarises occasionally, usually unintentionally (for, shockingly, Brahms 'stole' from Mozart piano concertos). For Radiohead, you might remember the case of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy TV show theme tune and Lucky, and some might have an uneasy feeling when hearing Reckoner on this album...
There are enough unearthly moments to continue to let Radiohead stand out when compared to typical guitar band fodder (and to be fair to their prior work, many of Radiohead's imitators are now those 'typical' bands we might judge them against); but do they want to stand out in a league of experimental music and sound art from Penderecki to Carsten Nicolai to Sachiko M? The core songs are well crafted, and the arrangements often cut against easy standard solutions, but they certainly don't make central any real concern with formal, harmonic, melodic, timbral, spatial and rhythmic novelty (and polyphony isn't much to the fore here either; feel free to add further undervalued parameters!). For instance, 15 step is disappointing for being an easy 5/4 (with 3+3+2+2 eighth note non-isochronous meter), when the divisions of 15 by 5 and 3 might have led to some interesting quintuplet/triplet explorations. Even if I was to look back to pitch materials inThe Bends I might point to the adoption of the octotonic scale of Just, or the fantastically clashing moment in the contrary motion guitar solo of My Iron Lung. I don't find very much I can point to in this rainbow release -- it's polished, it's well intentioned, it's showing a command of their techniques from previous albums -- it just doesn't go very far forwards. The most I can say is to point to the opening rhythmic ambiguities and drive of Bodysnatchers, or the alien hiphop of All I Need. But it's probably best to avoid dissecting too thoroughly the monothematicism of Videotape.
There was a time when Radiohead took real musical risks as they drew upon both electronica and indie influences at the turn of the century. In a previous review for Computer Music Journal I found much to praise in their engagement with electronic music. How far have Radiohead U-turned? They've withdrawn from the fuller electronica experimentation of the Kid A era, and found a comfort zone of their own somewhere between Jeff Buckley and Boards of Canada, without particularly challenging the technology nor musical conventions. So the innovation is mostly the hype of the digital download; perhaps the consumer is expected to fill in the experimental blanks? As a creative response to this perceived need and the download situation, a generative remixing program has been created for 15 step to accompany this review; using it, new remixes can be generated until the lawyers intervene (the program and DRM free 160 kbps mp3 examples are hosted on this site under generative music).
It's straight forward to obtain and listen to the album for yourself. Feel free not to pay; Radiohead are already rich (or you might prefer to wrestle with your conscience). According to a survey of 3000 downloaders, two thirds have been paying, with estimates of from four to forty million pounds taken early on, and no intermediaries to steal percentages! But the flip side is that with the record company hype engine pushed out of the way, we can more freely choose for ourselves how much to idolise them. I applaud their rejection of traditional marketing. But their human flaws are definitely closer, and a more critical view of all bands might be a healthy consequence of the album's release.