“Wall of Eyes” triumphs with chaotic composition

Collage of eyes
By Caroline Drew

The Smile’s latest record hints at Radiohead roots with nostalgic breakdowns, cascading melodies

You are driving alone along a winding road up an Italian mountainside. The darkness is peaceful and the scenery passes by slowly, but something is not quite right. The air is thick and wet, and you are not quite sure you’re breathing…

This is The Smile’s “Bending Hectic,” which was released as a single back in June and now finds its home in their new album “Wall of Eyes.” 

When I first learned that the vocalist and guitarist of Radiohead had formed a new band, their first album, “A Light for Attracting Attention,” failed to excite my interest. I thought it lacked the tightly-strung energy that Radiohead had as a five-piece band. I shrugged, declared that modern music was useless, and returned to my 90s-obsession cave (a.k.a. childhood bedroom).

But then I heard “Bending Hectic,” and I was instantly obsessed. I was consigned to my hometown, in the middle of a heat wave, house-sitting for a couple whose air-conditioner, unbeknownst to them, was broken. Lying in bed in a strangers’ 100-degree house, I would listen to the song night after night as I drifted into uneasy, sweat-soaked sleep. 

For the first five minutes of “Bending Hectic,” singer Thom Yorke whisper-sings as cascading guitars wind a solitary path up a mountainside, evoking a drug-induced syrupy delirium and the peaceful apathy of surrender.  His voice is sluggish and a single repeated note is twisted gradually in and out of tune, as if the peg keeps slipping  out of place.

“And time is kind of frozen / And you’re gazing at the view / And I swear I’m seeing double / No one’s gonna bring me down … I’m letting go of the wheel,” Yorke sings.

But then the song veers off course — a wall of dissonant strings begins to build, layering dense microtonal clusters, which have become iconic of guitarist and composer Jonny Greenwood’s music, rising slowly and then all at once into a ear-splitting screech before finally crashing down into an epic, shattering sea of wet noise. It gives Greenwood’s famous guitar attack on “Creep” a run for its money all these years later.

“Despite these slings, despite these arrows / I force myself to turn,” Yorke sings, leaving the song’s conclusion ambiguous — has he turned away from the cliff, the fall nothing more than a daydream that he was jolted out of?
Or has he given in to the call of the edge in a glorious pandemonium of release? 

Either way, I loved the loudness, the eerie peacefulness of the detuned guitar giving way to unrestrained chaos and catharsis. “Bending Hectic” is everything great about Radiohead, taken in an entirely new direction, showcasing the newfound creative freedom of Yorke and Greenwood, together with the fresh blood of drummer Tom Skinner. 

Despite the lack of publicized plans for a second album at the time, I tentatively crossed my fingers that we would get more of the fresh, squirming can of worms that “Bending Hectic” opened. Half a year later, the moment of reckoning arrived … for a small subset of music nerds, at least. 

“Bending Hectic” remains the eight-minute star of this album. Still, the rest of “Wall of Eyes” is a coherent and original project, which thematically and musically expands on “Bending Hectic” while providing a look into 55-year-old Yorke’s psyche in typically cryptic fashion. If this album is not revolutionary in the way “OK Computer” or “Kid A” were, it is still a delightfully fresh statement which is more than capable of standing on its own legs.

A rich, almost gluttonous sound marks much of “Wall of Eyes,” which is distinctly alive and energized in a way that we haven’t seen from the duo in a while. Yorke and Greenwood have seemingly shed the mantle of Radiohead, but “Wall of Eyes” is also a return to electric guitar and vocals that are reminiscent of earlier Radiohead, albeit with a newly mature, nuanced approach in place of the frantic, tortured energy of their youth. 

Stripped-down openings gradually build in intensity with added layers, distortion, reverb and electronics. The Smile superbly blends music into storytelling, using changes to create a narrative arc within each song that is complemented by, but not contingent upon, the lyrics. Re-listening is a delight, as the songs gain context within the whole, each one creating a new dimension in which to precariously rest the album’s concept. 

The music video for the titular “Wall of Eyes,” which the band released a few days in advance of the album, opens with a black-and-white Yorke in a staring contest with a giant, unblinking eye. In a fragmented, time-lapse sequence Yorke rushes through crowds and then sits motionless in a frenetic bar, surrounded by strangers who blur around him. A wall of disembodied hands applaud as Yorke barricades himself inside a phone booth, while his voice chants a repetitive count to five. You get the sense that he’s talking himself down from a panic attack, hypnotizing himself and the listener by creating order from chaos. 

Yorke’s voice soars as he croons “strap yourself in,” smiling as wind whips around him. In the last scene of the video, he sits down at a table of his doppelgangers, and wordlessly contemplates them all performing their respective affects, seeming to realize both their falsity and the impossibility of distancing himself from them.

Strings that drift in and out of tune, a drum which sounds like a clap of thunder and generous reverb lend the song gravitas despite its acoustic heartbeat keeping it grounded, and its 5/4 time signature contributes to the unsteady, revolving hypnotism. Though “Wall of Eyes” is ultimately one of the least exciting tracks, it works as an opener to expose the album’s pulse and present themes of perception, solitude and identity.

“Teleharmonic,” the second song on the album, starts slow before building up to a lush sonic landscape that feels like exploring a rainforest. A synth drone yawns and Yorke sings, “Will I make the morning? I don’t know” in a subdued falsetto, before a fluttering flute straight out of ’70s prog rock joins in. While the production leans toward a smooth pop sensibility, Skinner’s drums add a jazzy element with bursts of cymbal that sound like rustling leaves. 

Even “Under our Pillows,” whose opening is one of the album’s weak moments, is undeniably original. For the first minute, the track is dominated by an overbearing electronica riff — but then the guitar slows down and reverb distorts the dream into darker, dream territory. The baseline is still peppy, but there is something sinister going on below the surface, as it slowly devolves into desolate noise and electronic blips, like the underbelly of some cosmic machine. 

“Friend of a Friend,” the album’s other single, is another highlight of blissful melancholy and a must-listen, blending all of the album’s best elements with varied instrumentation, ample use of reverb, ambient noise and anti-drops, ascending chord progressions and intelligent syncopated drums. 

“All of that money, where did it go?” Yorke asks. “In somebody’s pocket, a friend of a friend.”

“Wall Of Eyes” carries forward the sense of unease that has always underpinned Yorke’s writing style. It is evidently a retrospective on the effects of fame and the consequences of being observed and scrutinized by the public eye. The album is haunted by alienation, distrust and disdain for an industry and, more universally, a world that claims to own us and to know who we are, which tries to mold us in its image, feeding off of insecurity and ambition.  

At the same time, Yorke seems to have found peace in reflecting on the absurdity of our personas, interpersonal manipulation and daily humiliations that are a fact of existence. I hear a man who is tired but no longer angry, who takes comfort in the knowledge that the journey is temporary and, freed of the pressure and attention of Radiohead, is determined to spend the time he has left connecting with our humanity.

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