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Radiohead have been firmly planted on the musical landscape for some time now, and are known for constantly evolving their style of dark paranoia into a succinct art form. Electronic beeps and wailing reverbed vocal sighs have become their major remit for the last decade or so, however in 1997, Radiohead were an out-and-out Indie Rock five piece.

OK Computer was released in the midst of the Britpop explosion that was coming to a fever pitch in 1997, along with Be Here Now, Urban Hymns, and Marchin’ Already. The album was different to the established summery feel of most of the year’s chart-topping albums, seeming to capture post-millennial angst years before it actually happened. 

Released off the back of 1995’s moody R.E.M-inspired Pop Rock album The Bends, OK Computer is an altogether more mature offering. The self-aware mumblings backdropped with inoffensive guitar that characterised Radiohead’s initial output gave way to frank realism and uplifting walls of melody. This is significant because it seems that this is the first record they had the confidence to do what they wanted. And they did it well.

Jonny Greenwood’s minor guitar plod kick starts the riff-heavy Airbag to open up the album. Two simple guitar lines creep into view and the tinny drum track (based entirely on a 3 second sample of Phil Selway’s drumming) eases the action along. Thom Yorke’s vocal delivery on this and the majority of the album is apathetic and uplifting all at once. When delivering the chorus hook, "In an interstellar burst/I am back to save the universe," it sounds heavily sarcastic. The blips and beeps at the end of the track accompanied with Jonny Greenwood’s jerky guitar dubs set this apart from their earlier work, and echo themes used later on in OK Computer. There was a lot of post-production done on the mix that makes this feel more like a cohesive album as opposed to a collection of songs.

Paranoid Android is one of the more experimental cuts from Radiohead’s back catalogue. The song has several movements, Thom Yorke has stated that he wanted to write a song akin to Happiness Is A Warm Gun. Starting with a standard verse/chorus/verse/chorus section, the steady pace makes way abruptly for rough powerchord stabs and Yorke shouting "You don’t remember, you don’t remember!/Why don’t you remember my name?/Off with his head man, off with his head!" After this the songs bursts into a simple aggressive guitar solo from Jonny Greenwood before dropping into a sullen acoustic progression, with vocal walls contributed by Yorke and rhythm guitarist Ed O’Brien. This is an anti-singalong, the words simply command "Rain down, rain down/Come on rain down on me, from a great height." The song ends abruptly with a frankly insane guitar solo from Greenwood.

It’s hard to say what this song is about. The famous line, "Ambition makes you look pretty ugly/Kicking, squealing Gucci little piggy" is a reference to a time when Yorke was at a bar, and accidentally spilled a drink on a girl’s dress. He was shocked at her reaction. Other people have likened the song to the fall of the Roman empire, and also a stab at critics of the band, "When I am king, you will be first against the wall/With your opinion which is of no consequence at all." 

Whatever the meaning, the lyrical content is classic Yorke, mainly cryptic with a couple of alarmingly lucid lines thrown in. Yorke also often employs lyrical collages to describe a general feeling or situation, and a great example of this can be found in the breakdown verse, "That’s it sir, you’re leaving/The crackle of pig skin/The dust and the screaming/The yuppies networking." All this somehow comes together and creates a 6 minute panic attack that is still one of Radiohead’s finest moments, if not their best.

The other singles lifted from this album are all well known in the musical landscape, piano ballad Karma Police is possibly their most popular and famous song. It maintains a conventional structure, yet still has that edgy paranoia that Radiohead are celebrated for. Yorke laments, "Karma Police, I’ve given all I can/It’s not enough, I’ve given all I can/But we’re still on the payroll." The epic outro with Yorke’s wailing repeated cry, "For a minute there/I lost myself" is a high point of OK Computer, and is the mid-album zenith. 

No Surprises is a cleaner, calmer song than most on OK Computer. The glockenspiel melody hook is something that you could play to a child to help them sleep. This is not to say that there is no edge. The lyrics are a lethargic ballad, telling the story of someone who has accepted the ennui of their existence and states, "This is my final fake/My final bellyache/With no alarms and no surprises, please." This song reflects the general feel of the album, the rage at the modern consumerist world, dulled almost to nothing by years of disappointment and failure. Being trapped is a recurring theme on OK Computer. If you listen closely on the final chorus of No Surprises you can hear the backing vocals requesting "Get me out of here."

This is the first record that Radiohead collaborated with long time producer Nigel Godrich. Godrich adds his own veneer to the sound, his signature can he heard on this and all later Radiohead albums. The production is crisp, with superb direction. The drums sit sweetly in the mid range, while the guitars soar on top of everything apart from Yorke’s lead vocals. The bass unobtrusively sits quietly in the lower reaches of the frequency spectrum. Simply put, this album sounds loud and clear. You can hear everything.

There are some profoundly uplifting cuts on OK Computer, Let Down is positively brimming with happiness. Yorke intersperses optimistic lyrics with dark edginess, sometimes in the same line: "One day I am gonna grow wings/A chemical reaction/Hysterical and useless/Hysterical and let down and hanging around/Crushed like a bug in the ground." Subterranean Homesick Alien tells of Yorke’s desire to be abducted by aliens who are confused and entertained by humanity: "and up above, aliens hover/making home movies for the folks back home/Of all these weird creatures who lock up their spirits/drill holes in themselves/and live for their secrets." Yorke observes that if he was abducted by aliens then people would think he was mad: "I’d tell all my friends, but they wouldn’t believe me/They’d think that I’ve finally lost it completely/I’d show them the stars, and the meaning of life/They’d shut me away/But I’d be alright/They’re just uptight." Lucky has a similar feel, Jonny Greenwood’s soaring guitar solos throughout back Yorke’s buoyant delivery, “It’s gonna be a glorious day/I feel my luck could change/Pull me out of the aircrash/Pull me out of the lake/’Cos I’m your superhero/Leave you standing on the edge.” All of this comes together to form a bright, chirpy soundscape.

The uplifting sections are counterpointed by several dark compositions, Exit Music (For A Film) is a bleak acoustic ballad about a young couple escaping to freedom. The pace is deathly slow, and there’s no percussion until it breaks into a harsh coda with Colin Greenwood’s bass fuzzing through the rest of the mix. The song ends quietly with Yorke repeating "We hope that you choke." Climbing Up The Walls has a similar dark feel to it. It’s a song about feeling trapped, about the fear of someone coming to hurt you, and it’s about feeling unsafe and slowly going mad. The string sections in the chorus provide an epic sinister backdrop to Yorke’s drawl, "Either way you turn, I’ll be there/Open up your skull, I’ll be there/Climbing up the walls." Climbing Up The Walls reflects a consistent theme of OK Computer, that being the fear of harming yourself, of being your own worst enemy.

OK Computer is not all gold, however. Electioneering may as well be an outtake of My Iron Lung, itself one of the more disposable songs on The Bends. The political slant doesn’t really work here, the polemic feels ham-fisted and far too direct in terms of the rest of the album. Yorke is at his best when lyrically obtuse or vague, and this song is one of the only direct cut lyrics-wise on OK Computer. The Tourist also sits at a lower level of quality. The pace meanders prettily along and the choruses are strong but The Tourist achieves nothing new after the soaring emotional punch of Lucky, the penultimate track. If OK Computer ended on Lucky then that would suffice. Fitter Happier is the only other obvious blip. The lyrics are biting and consistently hopeless, summing up the overall feel of OK Computer with lines such as “Calm, fitter, healthier/A pig in a cage/On antibiotics,” but there is not enough in the way of music on this track to call this a song. One thing Fitter Happier does introduce us to is the standard Radiohead mid-album bridging track. Radiohead always have 1/2 a song on an album; (see: Feral, Treefingers, Faust Arp, etc) Fitter Happier was the first.

OK Computer is a record depressed with the drudgery of day-to-day existence, and tired of the empty promises and serial let downs of the 90’s. The themes present a bleak, terrifying world with no way out. In spite of this, OK Computer is consistently uplifting and cathartic, the music flows through many ups and downs, from the dark experimental suite Paranoid Android, through floaty guitar trills atop a story of alien abduction in Subterranean Homesick Alien, the moody acoustic depression of Exit Music (For A Film) and the horrific scream at the end of Climbing Up The Walls, OK Computer storms the ramparts of the modern world with a duality of cosmic guitar melodies and stark lyrics. This record was important for Radiohead as it gave them huge commercial success and also started to flesh them out as the band they are known for today. 15 years on from the release of the album that some say killed Britpop, OK Computer is still relevant and vital for any complete record collection.

My rating: 9.8

Download: Paranoid Android, Karma Police, Airbag, Let Down, No Surprises, Climbing Up The Walls

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The Pirate Bay

The industry-wide furore that has been raging for a number of years regarding illegal downloads has recently come to the nation’s attention with the high court ruling that ISPs in the UK must ban access to The Pirate Bay.

The first thing to note here is that The Pirate Bay have not actually breached any UK law - The Pirate Bay, like all other major torrent sites is merely an aggregator for downloadable content. It acts in the same way as a search engine such as Google. The user sets a search, and then the site displays the most relevant results. The Pirate Bay merely points people in the right direction. It is clearly used by the majority of regulars for illegal downloads, but it is not explicitly and exclusively a facility for doing so.

Another thing here is that banning access to The Pirate Bay is merely a symbolic gesture. There are potentially millions of torrents up on the web for download right now, and in turn there are thousands of sites to find them on. New sites are being created on a daily basis, and banning each one of these would be something of a laborious process. Even if users prefer to use The Pirate Bay, there are several ways around the ISP ban that anyone with an intermediate knowledge of computing will tell you are quick and easy to achieve. Banning The Pirate Bay will do nothing to stem the tide of illegal downloading.

While this action is shocking simply for the morally abhorrent notion of censoring the internet, it also displays something that has become undeniably present in recent times - the industry cannot keep up with the aggressive speed of technological development. The major labels in this case are using their political influence and financial clout to protect their fast-diminishing assets. They seem to genuinely believe that this will save their business. Put simply, it won’t. The industry is far too bloated and decadent from the astronomical amounts of money being thrown around to even approach being sustainable, and illegal downloads do not contribute to the majority of that. Executive salaries, wasteful merchandise and promotional costs, and sunk investments in unsellable records and tours are a far greater threat to the major labels than loss of revenue through copyright infringement.

The industry must adapt and embrace new technology if it is to survive. CDs are still being sold, and legal downloads are an increasing market. Gigs and tours are becoming more popular. The consumer still wants to buy music. The problem lies in the business model - The major label industry is charging far too much for content that can be found easily elsewhere for free. Instead of accepting the shift in consumer attitudes and moving with the times, the majority of companies are standing their ground and forcing others to follow suit.

There is some adaptation. A good example of this is Spotify, a service that allows users to play music for a small fee, as long as they endure periodic advertisements. Users can opt to share information about their listening habits on social networks. In this way, companies can track consumer data such as which genres or artists are favoured by certain age groups, which areas of the world a particular artist enjoys a fanbase in and so on. This can help to plan marketing strategies and tour dates, vital information that can save companies millions. The labels also receive advertising revenue passed on to them via Spotify, which is easy money. This is one way that the industry can adapt.

There’s a famous fact that gets said a lot about the music industry - That 90% of records don’t recoup. This is something of an exaggeration, but it is true that labels routinely operate on a loss. No-one’s making money through recordings any more, and it’s because consumers aren’t gonna buy overpriced, overrated product that they know they can get for free. Instead of enacting ridiculous and ineffectual proceedings such as this, labels need to adapt to the new playing field. It’s a simple law of nature - Evolve or die. It seems that the major labels are choosing to do the latter.

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Blunderbuss

Jack White is truly one of this generation’s musical powerhouses. Having released 8 full length LPs in the last decade across 4 separate projects, he never seems to take a holiday, always jumping to the next project when the current one goes cold. Blunderbuss is his latest offering, and the first to be released under his solo moniker.

There are a number of excellent stand-out cuts from this album, the first being Love Interruption. No other song is like this on the record. A delightful keyboard/guitar/horns section backs a duet with a female vocal. A short statement of love in the extreme, this quiet vignette lasts for just over 2 and a half minutes, and is a welcome parse into Blunderbuss. The title track meanders through higher register vocals atop simple piano and a gorgeous reverbed slide guitar. Weep Themselves To Sleep emulates the style of some of Tom Waits’s greater moments, with a real urgent speakeasy jam feel. Trash Tongue Talker is a lurching Folk/Blues/Country toe-tapping piano mash-up, the initial pace of the verses goes double time for the bridge section, which makes the whole song a great whiskey sippin’ anti-ballad.

For every quality composition on this record, there seems to be a much blander counterpoint. Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy and I Guess I Should Go To Sleep are two examples of some teeth-grindingly twee moments on Blunderbuss. The second half of the album is far weaker than the first, most of the last 5 or 6 tracks seem pretty forgettable when compared to the much livelier and catchy first half.

Another thing to note here is that White tends to stick to a tried and tested formula for a number of the cuts from this album. Sixteen Saltines is the obvious single, and could be lifted straight off any White Stripes record. It seems that White feels compelled to pen a single for each record he releases, essentially if you’ve heard Fell In Love With A Girl, Steady As She Goes or Treat Me Like Your Mother, (And let’s face it, if you’re reading this then you’ve heard all those songs a million times,) then you’ll know exactly what to expect from Sixteen Saltines. It covers absolutely no new ground, and actually feels a little out of place, surrounded as it is by slower, more conscious Folk-Blues numbers. Similarly, the opener Missing Pieces is almost embarrassingly identical to the opening and title track from Consolers Of The Lonely.

The album is devoid of a number of White’s definitive stylistic tendencies - there are no big Bluesy Garage numbers and very little prominent guitar moments. White delivers his vocals in an overall more relaxed and mature tone. This element certainly works well in the first half of the album, however by the time the tracks fall into double figures, the style feels samey. White employs extensive use of female voice artists, on tracks such as Love Interruption, I Guess I Should Go To Sleep and I’m Shakin’. This is a welcome departure from other records in his career; White’s voice suiting male/female duets very sweetly.

The record is being toured with two bands, White is employing an all female compliment for some shows, and an all male for others. This is a remarkably simple and quirky twist on the usual Rock ‘n Roll show, and both ensembles are comprised of experienced, talented individuals. He is also playing songs from all his other projects, mainly White Stripes numbers, so if there was a time to see Jack White live, now would certainly be it.

What ultimately lets Blunderbuss down is that it enters the malaise of Jack White’s poly-project musical endeavours at the same level as records such as Elephant, Icky Thump and Consolers Of The Lonely - That is to say it’s among his best work, but his best works are still not the epoch-defining masterpieces that usually flesh out prolific careers such as White’s. There is nothing here that pushes the envelope in regards to lyrical content, song structure or musical integrity, but it is an enjoyable journey through the usual gamut of White’s gothic Americana-tinged irreverent take on life, love and loss. The songs are bouncy, catchy shindigs on the whole. Jack White certainly knows how to write radio-friendly alternative pop, he’s a great showman and he certainly loves what he does, but he has not yet composed his magnum opus. This is a superb record for the already converted, but if you don’t like White Stripes, Raconteurs or The Dead Weather then Blunderbuss will not win you over. While the stand out moments are fantastic, there is not enough A-grade material here to make this an instant classic.

My rating: 7.0

Download: Love Interruption, Blunderbuss, Weep Themselves To Sleep, Trash Tongue Talker, Missing Pieces

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Velvet Underground And Nico

45 years ago last month, The Velvet Underground released their eponymous debut, The Velvet Underground And Nico, and hardly anyone noticed. Lack of promotion and blanket banning from record stores and radio saw it drop out of the charts, trampled and forgotten underneath the blockbuster titles of the mid-60s. It was not until the late 70’s that this record received the universal acclaim it now enjoys.

Written primarily as a partnership between Lou Reed, who wrote most of the lyrics, and John Cale who oversaw the majority of the music, this album is noticeably dark and transgressive when compared to other landmark records released around the same time. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Pink Floyd had all made their breakthrough and were now recording in state of the art studios for major labels. Bob Dylan had forsaken his cult Folk following and “gone electric” years ago. The grittiness contrasted with the glossy Rock ‘n Roll mania of the celebrated artists of the era. It displayed New York’s bohemian underbelly of addicts, starving artists and forgotten intellectuals.

Funded by Andy Warhol, who took up most of the artistic direction under his art house The Factory, the project was completed in a matter of weeks. Recording took anywhere from 1-4 days depending on who you ask, and cost around $2,000, which was nothing in comparison to the standard recording costs of a major label release in that era. Warhol also introduced the band to Nico, a female singer from Germany who sang lead vocals on 3 of the tracks. The band were initially sceptical of her inclusion in the project, and the only reason she remained on the record was at the behest of Warhol. This original conflict soon abated however, Nico even ending up in a relationship with Lou Reed at one point.

Opening track Sunday Morning is a pleasant meandering lullaby, starting with Cale’s sweet intro of a glockenspiel that melts seamlessly into a quiet acoustic guitar line. Reed’s dreamy vocals are sung almost as an after thought, Watch out, the world’s behind you/There’s always someone around you who will call/It’s nothing at all. The slow major guitar solo after the second chorus is a soothing melodic climax before the final section. Sunday Morning is nothing like the rest of the album, and lulls you into a false sense of security before the the abrupt piano stabs of I’m Waiting For The Man, which is brashly about the experience of waiting on dealers to buy heroin. Reed encapsulates the psychology of an addict: Now don’t you worry/Darlin’ don’t you bawl and shout/I’m feelin’ good, you I’m gonna work it on out/I’m feelin’ good, I’m feelin’ so fine/Until tomorrow, but that’s just some other time.

It’s clear that the drug culture references are drawn from Reed’s personal experience of the 60’s New York scene, which makes it feel authentic. Heroin is a masterpiece, the noisy distorted sound piqued by sections of glib introspection, ‘Cos it makes me feel like I’m a man/When I stick a spike into my vein/And I tell ya, things aren’t quite the same/When I’m rushing on my run is a disarmingly frank line, coupled with the acceptance of his situation, Heroin, be the death of me/heroin, it’s my wife, and it’s my life show a bittersweet attitude that cuts right through the entire record.

Venus In Furs is Cale’s highlight on the record, the music scratching out with his off-key cello and violin cacophony to backdrop the story of a submissive/dominant sexual encounter. Reed’s lyrics here are his most poetic, Shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather/Whiplash girlchild in the dark/comes in bells, your servant don’t forsake him/strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart, even pushing into Beatles-esque imagery with the line Different colours, made of tears. The song plods along through each verse, and has a filthy, doped-up vibe.

Not every song on The Velvet Underground And Nico is a dirty, druggy journal, however. Nico’s beautiful love song I’ll Be Your Mirror is a simple ditty based around the pure adoration of another human being, I find it hard to believe you don’t know/the beauty you are/but if you don’t, let me be your eyes/A hand in your darkness so you won’t be afraid. This offers a delightful counterpoint to the screechy blackness of the rest of the record, indeed all of Nico’s songs on this record are excellent, All Tomorrow’s Parties, is a song lamenting a young girl lost and alone in the New York party scene, and Femme Fatale is a somewhat comic observation of a promiscuous friend of the band.

The Velvet Underground And Nico ends with European Son. It clocks in at just under 8 minutes, the majority of which is squealing feedback and thrashed out guitar jamming. This is by far not the best song on the record, but clearly there is no better way to finish the album. 

The Velvet Underground And Nico is so important because it directly influenced many artists that came after. Songwriters such as Kurt Cobain, Trent Reznor and Win Butler have all expressed a love for The Velvet Underground, and The Velvet Underground And Nico in particular. Without this album, there would be no Sonic Youth, The Cure, or The Smiths. The record can even be seen in more recent acts, The Libertines frontman Pete Doherty’s smacked-up poetry is heavily reminiscent of Reed’s lyrics. There is even a music festival named after one of the songs on this record! The banana front cover is one of the most iconic images of the last century, and launched Andy Warhol’s career. The album retains edginess, the direct lyrical references to sex and drugs coupled with the wailing black festival of noise still feel as raw as they were 45 years ago. This is a must have record.

My rating: 9.8/10.0

Download: Heroin, Venus In Furs, All Tomorrow’s Parties, I’m Waiting For The Man, Sunday Morning

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Noctourniquet

The Mars Volta are hard to predict. From their inception in 2002 after the demise of the (now reformed) Post-Hardcore powerhouse At The Drive-In, the group have gone through numerous stylistic changes, band members and record labels. From the glossy opium nightmare of 2003’s De-Loused In The Comatorium and the grandiose Prog-Jazz exploration of Frances The Mute right through to 2009’s stripped down Octahedron, the group have maintained the rare status of one of those bands who switch up their style from record to record and split opinion from fans and critics alike. Noctourniquet then, is their latest curveball.

The opening trio of songs assault the stereo with subtle heaviness. The usual wailing guitar solos and cagey aggressive vocals have been replaced with an altogether more laid back approach. Synths and electronic beeps are high in the mix, giving the sound a lush, busy feel. The biggest change seems to be Rodriguez-Lopez’s guitar, often the focal point at the front of the music, now almost completely absent from some of the songs. The guitar solo count for the entire record? Zero. Fans of The Mars Volta will attest that this is truly a paradigm shift for the group.

Noctourniquet has a number of introspective/experimental cuts; Empty Vessels Make The Loudest Sound, Vedamalady, In Absentia and Imago break up the pace of the record and ease the action along. Bixler-Zavala’s vocal delivery on these songs are particularly refreshing; the singer shows a far more mature approach to his performance in comparison to previous efforts.

Lead single The Malkin Jewel is a highlight, lurching into the frame with a clean minimalist feel to the instrumentation. Rodriguez-Lopez’s guitar guides us through the whispering vaudevillian sound scape. The song has an intense energy that builds right up to the end, but never explodes. This was something of a strange choice for the lead single, cuts such as The Whip Hand and Molochwalker would perhaps be a better choice in terms of radio-friendliness, however The Malkin Jewel does sum up the record well.

There are a couple of new members on this record, namely Deantoni Parks on drums and Marcel Rodriguez-Lopez on synths and keyboards. Both have made their mark on this record, notably altering the sound. Parks in particular has an infectious technical groovy lightness to his drumming, a counterpoint to the louder, almost Metal style of his predecessor Thomas Pridgen.

Trinkets Pale Of Moon is the odd-one-out on the record, an acoustic half-ballad placed near the end. The field recordings throughout echo certain elements from Frances The Mute, adding tension and retrospective flair to the track. Bixler-Zavala’s vocals here are his best performance on the album. His contribution to the record as a whole is the best by him on any put out by The Mars Volta to date.

Noctourniquet will certainly polarise fans. The days of 13 minute long, Spanish-drenched guitar frenzies are over. Those who pick up this record expecting lyrics about incest, possessed nuns and murder, obscure time signature changes and the general state of insanity found on records such as Frances The Mute and Amputechture need not apply. Noctourniquet will give you nothing like that. But that’s the point. The band have moved on, and with Noctourniquet, they are dragging you along with them. It is a triumphant, defiant return to form after the damp squib of Octahedron. The Mars Volta have finally put out a mainstream-friendly, traditionally structured album, and it’s their best record in years.

My Rating: 8.5/10.0

Download: The Malkin Jewel, Trinkets Pale Of Moon, Lapochka, The Whip Hand, In Absentia.