Wall Of Eyes (XL/Remote Control)
TIME STRETCHES TO MEET the moment, or something. In any case, people built skyscrapers, married, strayed, divorced and rehitched, or learnt Sanskrit in the gaps between Radiohead albums since a flurry at the turn of the century: the current wait for a successor to A Moon Shaped Pool is eight years. But send Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood off from their day job – to make film scores, electronic offshoots, classical commissions, solo albums – and it’s like someone unplugged a dam as non-Radiohead music comes gushing forth.
The Smile, a band whose name still elicits a wry grin each time you see their photo, and which puts those two ‘Heads together with the younger, art/jazz-oriented drummer, Tom Skinner, takes this tendency to almost shocking levels: this is their second album in under two years. Outrageous speed!
More than speed is at play though. Maybe it is the lack of overthinking, maybe the fact the songs were written on the road while touring that first album, maybe it’s a natural evolution, but Wall Of Eyes arrives with the feel of a group clear of mind, free to explore, and comfortable in its not-any-other-band skin. Sprung from regularly adventurous arrangements, their songs can skirt or boldly cross the boundaries of rock, introverted studio ‘scapes and musing pop and do so without backward glances.
You can see that in the light, slightly Latin, rhythm, acoustic guitar and mallet-on-drums title track, which flows easily through choppier environments in the second half of the song (John Barry-like upwardly winding strings; vocal samples touched with foreboding; Mike Garson-ish piano somehow transfiguring into what might be synthetic harp), and it’s opening companion, 'Teleharmonic', where flute and almost choral backing voices bring an unexpected air of the early ‘70s.
At the other end of the spectrum, it’s evident in the way the fractured, circling the drain guitar of 'Under Our Pillows' meets just enough of a motorik rhythm to suggest pulsing travel, only to collide with the devolving mood of terse strings, squawks and fidgety keyboards. Or how the album ends with Yorke’s voice as tendrils at first waving in the thin air of 'You Know Me' and then resisting being absorbed into the thickening atmosphere of strings and sonic reverberations.
And there’s 'Friend Of A Friend' which takes off from a very Radiohead mix of muted light and piano, the foundation for a clearly offered intimacy, that with quickening anxiety threatens to twist away from any restraint. A link to a not very past past.
But the most telling part of Wall Of Eyes for me comes in two songs late in the album where mood, movement and melody interplay in what may become known as a signature of this trio, 'I Quit' and 'Bending Hectic'.
The sprays of percussion – woody taps; deteriorating echoes; clipped snares – against the curved wall of strings in 'I Quit' evokes a coastal setting of scudding clouds, murky seas and uncertain ambitions. Not as grim as a hooded Meryl Streep in Lyme Regis, Yorke’s murmur working as a humming subtext rather than a warning, but more Rachael Blake in the persistent leak of rain over Malabar, the tempo never rising or falling but holding everything in place.
In its wake, 'Bending Hectic' with its similar pace and tone might in other circumstances dip further and reach for the gloom: “the ground is coming for me now,” croons Yorke. But gloom is skirted here, the sadly romantic strings nodding to peak-years Jimmy Webb, being both elegant and elegiac, while the guitar bends a note on the edge between discordant and attractive. It’s pretty, no question at all.
Oh, wait. Approaching the six minute mark those strings rise higher and tighter, squeezing tension into agitation, and then drums and guitar come crashing through and pound the surface repeatedly. Yorke is louder but still contained; it is Greenwood’s throttled guitar which tosses itself about and the final two minutes of the song is all turbulence. Quite excitingly too.
I wonder if the quick and flexible pleasures for The Smile’s members, a project which began as an anteroom of Yorke/Greenwood’s Big House, might prompt a loosening of the grip for Radiohead’s often tortuous processes. It doesn’t need to be a nine year wait fellas, just sayin’.
But then maybe it is time to stop seeing The Smile in relation to some other band: they do pretty ok as themselves.
Wall Of Eyes is out on January 26