REVIEW: Radiohead – “Burn The Witch”
by Chad Jewett
Radiohead makes ominous music; the same way that Nirvana made caustic music or Minor Threat made righteously furious music. It’s their given key, the mode that defines what they do. At their best, Radio elevates a distinctly modern, post-Cold War anxiety into something operatic and sweeping. Hail To The Thief was their last high-water mark in this register (In Rainbows, which is perhaps the better album, is far more interested in intimacy than politics) – the sound of a band trying to figure out how to soundtrack what felt like (and still might end up being) a harrowing turning point in world history. If Hail To The Thief saw the quintet bracing for war, then “Burn The Witch”, our first new bit of non-Bond-soundtrack material in years, finds the band seemingly commenting on the wars’ authoritarian aftermath.
The nightmarish accompanying clip for “Burn The Witch” explores that dangerous fear of outsiders and its fuel of creeping paranoia, a claymation video of a man visiting a town harrowingly proud of its torture devices who eventually falls victim to the town’s ritualistic violence. The track’s surreal sonics match its narrative (which Thom Yorke offers in a disquieting howl, all long ghostly vowels). Above are churning strings that offer both beauty and dissonance, bending and scraping ever-so-slightly out of harmony in a fashion that recalls some of Johnny Greenwood’s scoring work for films like There Will Be Blood (especially in the mounting tension of the song’s closing bars): music that hypnotized even as it spiked blood pressure. Below that is a hyper-compressed bit of synth bass and a compact beat, the kind of highly syncopated rhythm section that is as definitive a piece of Radiohead’s aesthetic as any, and perhaps their chief innovation – the sound of a live band turning the mechanized thump of trance music into something like jazz. “Burn The Witch”’s mix of tension and warm tactile sound is entirely apt of Yorke’s clearest statement here: “This is a low-flying panic attack”.
[Image via AP]