Make no mistake, Hail to the Thief's sparse experimentalism is vintage Radiohead: hypnotic, spacy, authentically (not ostentatiously) artsy, and far from commercial (which is a good thing). Cloudy, atmospheric effects on tracks like "Where I End and You Begin" set the mood with floating chimes emanating from Johnny Greenwood's ondes martenot, an early electronic instrument notable for its use in old horror flicks. Pivot tones are used to produce jumps from one guitar or vocal chord to another. The haunting yet beguiling contrast between distorted hard rock riffs and crisp, clean, Philip Glass-like effects haven't been nailed down this tightly by the group before.

Hail's first track, "2+2=5," is an antiwar song on which an acoustic intro is engulfed by thrashing punk guitar rips, and passionate, stimulated singing rather than Thom Yorke's typically dragged-out-of-bed vocals. The song's lyrics point out how "It's too late now because you haven't been paying attention." Aside from the song's metaphorical preachiness, this type of attitude illustrates why Radiohead is often perceived as pretentious. But the notion that a rock band shouldn't take itself this seriously should be ignored when it comes to Radiohead (as opposed to U2's Bono). This well-read, academically inclined band creates thoughtful symbolism that sews reality and abstraction like no other group and its music's searing harmonies don't cater to crowd-pleasing bullshit. Every Radiohead song is an attempt at a masterpiece that is frequently accomplished, excusing the admittedly frequent (and tired) predilection for despair.

The song that sticks out the most from Hail's collection of somber compositions is "A Punch-up at a Wedding," a facetious smirk at their own insistent intellectualism. The song shades a bluesy rhythm, precise backbeat, and Yorke's jilted poetry into an opaque soliloquy about a wedding gone awry. You can't tell by the music that they are trying to make fun unless you listen to the lyrics about a "drunken punch-up" who comes to a wedding "just to start a fight," then begs "it wasn't like that." It's a window into a bleak kind of comedy that might muster up laughter from the band members ... but of course they'd only be laughing on the inside. At a time when pop music is obnoxiously feel-good and upbeat, Hail's dismal polish is as refreshing as it is unique.

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Humberto Guida
Contact: Humberto Guida