First Listen: The King of Limbs, Radiohead

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Kings of reinvention, but Radiohead haven't gone out on a limb

As usual, the first listen to a new Radiohead album leaves a slight residue of disappointment – Is that all? Just eight tracks? And so lacking in the variety one might expect? – which dissipates with each successive hearing, as the overall design becomes clearer.

After several listens, a few points become more apparent. The first is the relative absence, especially for a band nominally boasting three guitarists, of any but the subtlest, most diffident guitar parts. Instead, the album floats on airy keyboard loops anchored by brittle drum patterns and bedded within a background patina comprised of natural sounds – bird song, wind, etc – and glitchy electronic bricolage, as if surfing the cusp between the analogue and digital worlds. The second is the contrast with the previous album In Rainbows, which, as its cover design implied, gleamed with iridescent musical colours; here, the world seems much more monochrome – as in the video for "Lotus Flower", in which Thom Yorke throws expressive dancing shapes in an abandoned warehouse space. Stark, black-and-white beats are tinted with greyscale keyboard chords, while Yorke's layered vocals cloud around like fog.

"Bloom" trickles in on a fluttering loop of piano, with a bustling 5/4 drum figure swiftly added; humming vocal lines, and what sounds like a high trumpet line, lend it the miasmic manner of Miles Davis, circa In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew, as Yorke invites us to "Open your mouth wide/ Universal sigh", before diving into the "ocean blue". It's a strange opener, coalescing gradually rather than imposing itself, but as such indicative of the album as a whole. "Morning Mr Magpie" rides a damped guitar riff and hi-hat, with reverberating sheets of sound looming ever larger, until everything suddenly resolves into a quiet clearing. The instrumental "Feral" sounds in a blessed hurry to get nowhere in particular, its collaged smudges of electronic noise and treated vocal sounds careering along on another animated percussion riff. But "Lotus Flower" is lovely, its loping bass and brusque drums carrying Yorke's most affecting falsetto as he protests how "there's an empty space inside my heart". "Codex" continues in similar vein, with an airy, soulful vocal and portentous piano chords freighted with more trumpet tones and the merest fragment of swirling strings. Then bird song segues into the slow groove and acoustic guitar chords of "Give Up the Ghost", whose looped and layered vocal counterpoints stack into a disembodied chorale.

"Separator" is the final track, with more echoey vocals and brittle drums embellished with pleasing guitar filigree and piano. It ends with a quiet counterpoint of "Wake me up, wake me up" surfacing through the later stages, as if the track – or maybe the entire album – has been a drifting dream. That's not inappropriate: in overall design, The King of Limbs sounds like the bastard offspring of dubstep and Nico Muhly, the brilliant composer whose string and choral arrangements inhabit the open spaces between contemporary classical and art-rock. As usual, it bears little direct relation to previous Radiohead albums, but could hardly have been made by any other band, a paradox which could serve as the group's distinctive imprimatur.

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