The Amazing Sounds of the Apocalypse: Radiohead's "Pyramid Song"
With the release of the Pyramid Song two-CD single set, Radiohead has given us their first B-sides since those coming off 1997’s OK Computer. The Radiohead presented on these two discs is looser and trippier than the one found on their latest LP, Amnesiac. Amnesiac disappointed a lot of people’s expectations that their new album would be a return from the beautiful weirdness of 2000’s Kid A. Pyramid Song will only further these disappointments. This dark, ambient, dance-influenced rock on Pyramid Song may be the most bizarre material Radiohead has released yet.
CD one kicks off with the moody, ambient swing of “The Amazing Sounds of Orgy”. The scene is desolate and eerie-low synths accompany a beautifully clanging rhythm as Yorke’s voice slides in deep and brooding. Like so many Radiohead songs, a horrible tragedy has occurred and Yorke is left sifting through the wreckage. “I want to see your smile again,” he sings, “like diamonds in the dust.” Yorke seeks to cling to love among the chaos but cannot—the forces swirling around him are too omnipresent. “Cease this endless chattering, like everything is fine,” sings Yorke, “But sorry is not good enough, sit in back with us, we’re on drugs, drugs.” The foe here is the deadening consciousness of the age of Prozac and ecstasy. While on Amnesiac Yorke dealt with the demons of lost memories, on Pyramid Song he tackles the demons of a culture suffocating itself with drugs and boredom. “The Amazing Sounds of Orgy” is just that-the song’s jittery synth tones, buzzing effects and noises, its sudden stops and starts, are the sounds of a consumer culture’s orgy, devouring itself in its own selfishness and need to escape its all too real problems. Yorke stands in the middle, trying to croon to his lover-“So glad, so glad, you’re mine.” The song’s tragedy, much like the pathetic machismo of Amnesiac‘s “You and Whose Army?” is the realization that his attempts are futile and hopeless. The orgy is all encompassing.
“Trans-atlantic Drawl” follows, a blistering rock song, the first bonafide guitar rock track Radiohead have released since OK Computer‘s “Electioneering”. The song is alive and kicking, Yorke’s vocal and the pure electric noise of the guitar jumping out of the speakers as if they were pent up in their for ages. “Trans-atlantic Drawl” is one and a half minutes of pure adrenaline, owing more to the UK indie band Clinic than Radiohead’s earlier rock records. The pain and searching of “The Amazing Sounds of Orgy” are replaced by pure disgust and fury-much like “Electioneering”. This track finds Yorke defiantly spitting in the face of the corporate anonymity mongers trying to smother him. Yorke, in his best Johnny Rotten pose, positively yelps, “Iiiiiiiiiii was born for your magazines . . . I am trapped in the society page . . . of your magazineeeeeeeees!” The name of the game on this cut is looseness and vigor.
After each chorus a deafening wall of screeching guitar noise enters, matching Yorke’s anger in its hair-raising intensity. What makes Yorke more angry than the omnipresence of the dehumanizing forces he’s fighting is his inability to comprehend them or grasp them. Just before the guitar brigade crashes in for the first chorus, Yorke wearily laments, “I don’t know what it means.” And suddenly it all changes-the lofi guitar chaos stops on a dime and a quiet layer of synthesizers slide in. The effect is that of waking up from a nightmare and finding yourself in your quiet bedroom with the moonlight softly filling the room. The shift puts the anger of the song’s beginning into a different, more complex light. Instead of being a battle call, the song’s rant against consumerism is more of a last gasp. The song’s final minute of mildly effected synthesizers is a requiem, an ode much in the spirit of “Paranoid Android”‘s middle section, honoring and eulogizing Yorke’s lost vigor. The effect is quite startling.
CD two continues on the same moody example set by “The Amazing Sounds of Orgy”. “Fast-track” is a grooving instrumental, synths darting in here and there, guitar noise rising and falling, a quiet, effected voice bobbing in and out, muttering unintelligible sounds, the drums dropping and rising, clumping and dispersing. The song’s experimentation and unpredictability owes a large debt to DJ Shadow’s cut-up technique that Yorke witnessed first hand when the two collaborated for “Rabbit in Your Headlights” in 1998. The track is slippery and elusive, a mellow driving song, trees and signs zooming by, words and phrases thought of and subsequently dropped, drum phrases begun and cut up-a distant memory of a song. The song is an interesting experiment but is certainly the weakest track on Pyramid Song. While all the other songs would’ve expanded and enriched Amnesiac, “Fast-track” would be filler track. Interesting studio technique, but not on par with the other pieces in this set.
“Kinetic”, the single’s closer, certainly steals the show. It is an amazingly startling track, one of Radiohead’s most penetrating and captivating recordings to date. In fact, it blows a lot of Amnesiac right out of the water. A lone, bobbing synthesizer opens the song—the notes are delayed—a note is hit and it slowly rises up seconds later, yearning to break the oppressive silence. Yorke’s vocal comes in naked and brittle, up front and direct. His voice is sad and delicate as he sings, “You’re being took for a ride / Plain old lazy / Please keep moving / Better keep moving.” It soon becomes clear that the setting is dark road, late at night, Yorke speaking to a driver at the wheel. As in the “Karma Police” video, the automobile holds ominous import-disaster is at hand. Yorke knows—he’s survived the auto apocalypse envisioned in “Airbag”.
Echoing the emotional and sensuous deadening explored on CD one, Yorke warns the doomed driver, “Don’t fall asleep at the wheel.” He knows what has happened though. As in “The Amazing Sounds of Orgy”, the beast always wins: “I’m waiting for you but you never came.” As the track progresses slippery cut and paste drum beats enter and get morphed and twisted, expanded upon and polished, blurred and delayed, phased in and out. The mentor again is DJ Shadow—a beat is no sooner started than it is lost in a sea of dance floor cut ups. Low harmonies swim in and out as Yorke begins to plead and wail: “Please keep moving / Better keep moving / Please keep moving / Better keep moving.” The effect is jarring and sad—the only way to escape is to drive as long and fast as you can before the inevitable end. Unfortunately, not even the drums can get enough steam to fill out a measure. The end is bleak and foreboding.
The four new tracks on Pyramid Song are no mere B-side filler. These are engaging and captivating tracks, presenting a version of Radiohead a little less polished and refined than that which usually shows up on their LPs. Their dance and electronica influences shine through on these quiet, moody, epileptic tracks that jitter and shake, bounce and flutter, never finishing anything they begin. If Amnesiac is the lonely wail in the wake of the coming apocalypse, these tracks are the desperate, insensible muttering of the survivor beginning to move again but not knowing how. Movement and thought are glimpsed at but lost. The only thing left, besides lying down and dying, is to keep on moving, hoping that something will happen. Yorke is the quintessential Beckett-ian antihero-merely surviving, merely moving, merely breathing, is a heroic feat, precisely because there is nothing else to do. Consciousness is dominated by the magazines, so fly from it. “Better keep moving / Please keep moving.”