About The Pennds

The Pennds is: Jared Rosenberg, Steve Waye, Andrew Bielen & Charlie Isaacs.

Mission Statement: The Pennds explores Radiohead from an academic perspective. We go beyond notions of active listening in favor of involved perception, in order to better understand the band's work. We do not assign superlatives; in fact we challenge those that exist. Using the framework of discourse, we aim not to pin down the essence of Radiohead, but rather to set free that concept, to give it pliable spirit.

Special Thanks to Al Filreis for making this (and so much more) possible.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Soundscapes

Since Radiohead turned their focus outwards with OK Computer, the use of space and dimension has become an integral part of their music.  Through a variety of methods, the band has created an atmosphere unique to each album they have released since then.  Whether confined and suffocating, or hauntingly empty and echoey, the instrumentation and aural effects of each album create a place as well as they create a mood.

The construction of soundscape truly began on OKC.  Informed by the knowledge of where and how the album was recorded (in an English countryside mansion), it is easy to point out that that is exactly the place OKC aims to take its listeners. Pianos pushed up against marble staircases to create icy echoes (Karma Police), orchestration that fills up the recording until it climaxes in a wall of strings (Climbing Up the Walls), a radio or TV left on in the background chattering on for no particular audience (Fitter Happier)... all of these methods make the listener feel alone in a haunted house.

On Kid A the "location" of the soundscape is not so easily pinpointed.  There is less form to the picture being painted, as should be expected from an album as chaotic as this one.  After all, in so many words, the band members (Thom in particular) have described the album as a "distant view of the apocalypse".  Buzzy synths, chopped and distorted vocals, and uncomfortably quirky time signatures create a jagged landscape.  Roiling in the distance is the fire, which climaxes with a static burst on "Ideoteque".  That song in particular serves as the prime example of "soundscaping" on Kid A.  It's earthquake rhythm, deep bass pulses and nebulous mechanical sounds give the image of some great complex erupting in a shower of sparks and electric explosions.  "Ideoteque" dies out with the rusty oscillations of twisted metal and radiation, leading into "Morning Bell" - a song whose mood could be interpreted as emergence from the bunkers of "Ideoteque".  Then the closing track, "Motion Picture Soundtrack", whisks us all away with angelic harps... an escape from the ruined landscape left in the wake of "Ideoteque".

Whereas Kid A is the apocalyptic expanse, Amnesiac is the quaking core, the heart of the fire.  With far less echo and reverb than its "twin" Kid A, Amnesiac is confined.  Tight rhythmic structures guide this album through the immediacy of the situation it describes.  Where Kid A was vast, Amnesiac is compact.  The first half of "You and Whose Army?" with its muffled vocals and airy guitar sounds like it was recorded in a puddle.  Soundscape, though, might not be an applicable term for Amnesiac.  Most of the music, despite its quirkiness, sounds like studio music, probably because it uses far more typical studio instrumentation than Kid A.

Unfortunately, Hail to the Thief is so scattered that one would have a hard time delineating a consistent mood for the album, and thus it is difficult, as well, to pin down the layout of Hail's soundscape.  Moving right along then to In Rainbows, one might picture a calm ocean.  IR's watery guitar and wavy, loose vocals will make a listener feel submerged, but not desperately so.  Not to mention the lyrics' frequent metaphors to that effect - in "Weird Fishes" Thom discusses sinking to the bottom, and being "eaten by the worms and weird fishes"... but this is not cause for alarm, rather it's "escape".  There are few jolting moments on IR, and even those are minor.

As listeners, we should appreciate the dimensions of space that music can conjure in our experience.  It is hard to find such a detailed crafting of distance and texture in music as Radiohead creates, especially music grounded (though distantly) in pop and rock.

-Jared


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