Brice Ezell: For a band with such a reputable discography, Radiohead — rather perplexingly — continues to rely on gimmick-heavy album releases. The music cannot simply speak for itself. Sure, there can be an element of artistic ingenuity behind these rollouts, but they have increasingly begun to feel like hype mills, devices through which to generate the impression that an album is better or more important than it actually is. (This, of course, is not unique to Radiohead; no amount of cockamamie high-art justifications for Kanye’s constant alterations of The Life of Pablo can obscure its scattershot quality.) But because Radiohead is Radiohead — and music critics are music critics — the slightest hint of album release provocation will send online outlets and social media channels into a frenetic buzz of self-fulfilling hype. Never mind when Radiohead’s ostensibly innovative LP drops are hardly innovative (2007’s solid In Rainbows, whose pay-what-you-will model had been utilized previously before by a range of artists, including Bomb the Music Industry!) or when the hype deflates upon the arrival of a boring album (see the 2011 flop The King of Limbs): when Radiohead makes a sound, everyone listens with perked ears.
Not even the comparatively lukewarm reception of The King of Limbs could stop the music world from overheating when Radiohead began erasing its web presence over the weekend of 29 April. The collective salivation got even more pronounced when a brief clip of a stop-motion bird chirping was posted to Radiohead’s Instagram account on the night of 1 May. By the next morning, the enigmatic and cheery clue was explained when the full video for “Burn the Witch” was released unto the globe.
“Burn the Witch”‘s stop-motion take on The Wicker Man is appealing, but even more appealing is the tune itself, which outstrips all of the King of Limbs material. Thom Yorke’s airy tenor soars over a tense string arrangement that feels like it’s already arrived at a crescendo right as it kicks in, making the explosive finale all the more powerful. Lyrically the track leaves a bit much to be desired; cliches like “burn the witch” and “shoot the messengers” are hardly interesting enough to inject a sense of doom into slightly more interesting lines like “this is a low flying panic attack.” Then again, with Yorke’s lovely voice forming an unsettling juxtaposition to the strings, the words don’t really matter.
The song no doubt owes its contemporary classical leanings to the work of guitarist Jonny Greenwood, whose collaborations with composers like Krzysztof Penderecki and film scores (especially for Paul Thomas Anderson) have made him a minor darling in the contemporary classical scene. If Radiohead is able to bring along an even mildly sizable string section on its upcoming tour dates — one would think a band with resources like this is certainly capable of doing so — “Burn the Witch” will be a tour de force in a live setting.
Radiohead can continue to be as cryptic as it likes in releasing its new album. If the rest of what’s to come is as good as “Burn the Witch,” that’ll be more than enough. The music will outlast the anticipatory hullaballoo. [8/10]
Timothy Gabriele: For all their “No Logo”-slinging, fair trade spouting, establishment-defying anti-capitalist rhetoric, Radiohead have displayed a deep understanding and employed a willful participation in the marketing theatrics of the web 2.0 world They know how to play the news cycle. And what could more simultaneously effacing and self-anointing in 2016 than to remove your entire internet presence in anticipation of a new LP.
Though they’ve produced some great music after their coming-of-age phase (which roughly spans 1995 to 2001), Radiohead’s post-millennial output always seems to be teetering between the edges of that period, unsure whether to tap back to the transcendent rock of The Bends or plunge deeper into the abstraction of Kid A / Amnesiac Indecision is a core theme of their various meditations on modern alienation, but one can’t help listen to their discography of the last decade or so and think that even when you’ve broken free of corporate chains, the freedom to choose your own path can still become its own panopticon of a sort. Radiohead may have choked on all that pressure to become the great rock band of the new millennium, as critics circa OK Computer had promised they’d be.
Sonically, “Burn the Witch” finds Radiohead the band as confident as ever — plucked spritely strings, guttural low end, and a creepy percussive lurch — all these things in position- but lead singer Thom Yorke still sounds like he’s suspended in purgatory His mumblecore vocals declare in droning deficiency that “this is a low-flying panic attack”, but with the track’s insistent staccato momentum this is exactly what the song needs and lacks It needs the hurling rage and frenzied shout of “YOU DON’T REMEMBER, YOU DON’T REMEMBER/WHY DON’T YOU REMEMBER MY NAAAAME?”
In an odd way, “Burn the Witch” almost functions as self-indictment “Stay in the shadows”, the song begins, proceeding to notarize the group’s lingering legacy; “Avoid all eye contact / Do not react” Radiohead is often noted for their stances against things, refusing invitations to speak with Tony Blair and touring for a period only at locales without logos in their names. But they’ve been just as defined by their reclusiveness, shunning interviews, retreating to what is presumably their mountains of money, and attempting to avoid the anxiety that appears to plague them at every turn while others do the hard cultural work of attempting to break loose from the late capitalist predicament that haunts them. If their diagnostics remain grounded and their sonic keep pivoting backwards to the turn of the century, us music folks are going to have to decide at some point whether Radiohead still remains that great progressive rock band we project them to be or whether they are just a formerly great band who can’t seem to avoid burrowing themselves into their own legacy. [6/10]
Jared Skinner: After weeks of mysterious social media expunging and rumors abound, Radiohead have returned with a new song and claymation video very reminiscent to “The Wicker Man” and British children’s TV show “Trumpton”. The resulting combination is an eerie nightmare of stringed instruments and Thom Yorke’s detached voice plodding you through this idyllic town with a constant sense of unease. With lines like “stay in the shadows”, “abandon all reason” and “shoot the messengers”, Radiohead certainly did not intend to make their return single a quiet one. Rife with political subtext seemingly aimed at the nationalism and exclusivism of Donald Trump in America and the UKIP party of England, “Burn the Witch” offers a poignant, bitter and wonderfully topical return from the alternative legends. [8/10]
Pryor Stroud: Surrounded by a cloud of ambiguity and speculation, the video for Radiohead’s “Burn the Witch” was posted on the band’s website under the heading “Dead Air Space” — what could either be the title for the band’s ninth studio album or just a bit of evocative wordplay. But that’s beside the point. “Burn the Witch” itself is quintessentially Radiohead, suffused, from the first burst of pizzicato string-twitches to the final chorus-swirl of orchestration and anxiety, with the band’s ethereal crypto-rock aesthetic. “Burn the witch / We know where you live,” Thom Yorke croons, the string section succumbing to paranoia behind him, and each word seems to be pregnant with a dark, all-consuming fear. Whether this is some 17th century colonial settlement or the modern world, one thing is evident: this fear could be the difference between living for one’s beliefs and dying for them. [9/10]
Emmanuel Elone: There’s a reason why Radiohead went from being a great Britpop group to being considered as possibly the best rock group of the 21st century, and it’s because of songs like “Burn the Witch”. The instrumentation not only is as textured and layered as some of the band’s best work in the late ’90s, but the orchestral strings and grandiose build throughout the song complements Thom Yorke’s iconic falsetto singing. If the rest of their new album will be as methodically layered and textured as “Burn the Witch”, it will be a warm welcome after 2011’s King of Limbs, and will certainly live up to the hype and high expectations from fans. [8/10]
Kevin Korber: Look, no new Radiohead material is going to live up to the expectations that are heaped upon “Burn the Witch”. This is not only the first new Radiohead song in five years; it’s also the first new Radiohead song to come after what most consider to be the first real misstep in their history. As a result, “Burn the Witch” doesn’t live up to the hype only because it’s an impossible amount of hype to live up to. On its own terms, though, it’s a fine Radiohead song. Thom Yorke is as good a vocalist as there is, and his words drip with the sort of post-millennial paranoia that only Radiohead seem to do well. Musically, this points in a slightly new direction, or at least one that moves away from the drum-and-bass morass that bogged down The King of Limbs. It’s an understated single from the band, sure, but it’s still well worth the time. [7/10]
Chris Ingalls: The percussive strings that run through the track have a catchy, irresistible flavor that seems to fly in the face of the band’s “anything goes” dissonance, but the mood eventually turns grimmer and we’re back in sync with the band’s usual (welcome) weirdness. Still, it comes off as the closest Radiohead has come to a dance song, at least in this century. String-laden but still deeply processed, it’s Radiohead doing what they do best: whatever they want. [8/10]
Evan Sawdey: “This is a low-flying panic attack.” No shit, Thom Yorke. In a song (and video) that shows paranoia towards outsiders and with a tense string section pushing this Hail to the Thief-era rhythm to the fore, Radiohead move past the somewhat downtempo detour that was the divisive The King of Limbs. I want to hear more, but even just now, I’ll settle for hearing it again, jangled nerves and all. [7/10]
Steve Horowitz: Like the snake that eats its tail, Radiohead gets right back to creating sounds that double-back on themselves and create slightly disturbing connections that make one think and listen harder. It’s the soundtrack to being a well-respected man, but without the Kinks overlay of irony. The dead air is in our own heads. The video of Lego-like mouthless people engaged in village play to fool the auditor who himself is fooled by something more menacing, well — it is way cool. Provocative and funny, the narrative and its soundtrack constantly engage. This will unclog your ears if you let it. [10/10]
Chad Miller: The strings are the most exciting thing here, whether they’re involved in a sweeping melodic line or part of the rhythmic backing. The vocal melody isn’t nearly as interesting though, usually just fitting neatly into the already established chords. The production on the track is pretty effective though, especially as it leads the track out. [7/10]