When news came in 2021 that Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood were teaming up with Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner, surprise soon gave way to a sense of inevitability. Enter The Smile.
These were like-minds on an exploration a la Cream’s Ginger Baker jumping aboard Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat carnival in the 70s, or Tim Buckley’s Frodo-like journey from doe-eyed folk to Starsailor’s unwieldy jazz-rock fusion in the space of four short years.
Following on from 2022 debut A Light for Attracting Attention, Wall of Eyes finds the group plugging in and picking up where they left off. Freighted by spindly guitars and the flick of Skinner’s paradiddle-ing wrists, it is a second album of non-groove grooves that prove The Smile to be an ever-alluring beast.
Lyrically, however, it’s hard to tell if Yorke is more defiant than ever in railing against the world or more confused. While he long ago either ran out of coherent narratives or decided to toss them out his electric car window, his non-sequiturs once sounded like clues to a story that only he knew. Now, he sounds increasingly uncertain, more discombobulated, as though his full stops have been traded for a series of ellipses spinning off into infinity.
That is not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps it simply reflects older age, when the implacable rage that propels our youth – usually the result of ignorance – gets overwhelmed by a life lived, lessons learned, and a dulling of conviction. It happens to us all.
The album opens with the title track, its tribal drums recalling Radiohead’s crescendo-laden epic ‘There There’ recast to acoustic guitars, strings and ambient effects; the result is the sort of rich hue that could’ve adorned Scott Walker’s 4.
‘Teleharmonic’ follows: an atmospheric slow burn that teeters on the hypnotic, while the frenzied guitars of ‘Under Our Pillows’ impersonates how the past envisioned a malfunctioning robot from the future (fear not, though, it’s an ear-tickler that squats in your brain and refuses to leave).
Elsewhere, ‘Read the Room’ is a melange of guitar skronks that takes time to reveal its charms, whereas ‘Bending Hectic’ and its wind-chimes-porch-jangle gives way to an electrifying mid-song surge that slaps you around the chops and throws a glass of water in your face.
Throughout, Skinner’s inventive drumming is alchemical to Yorke and Greenwood’s intrepid melodies. The Smile is a place where Yorke’s voice is couched within the music, standing shoulder to shoulder with the instruments rather than sitting on top, and it makes their music feel like a pristine bootleg from a small club show.
The only time that formula is thrown into the jazz-rock shredder is on the ‘Pyramid Song’-like skip of standout track ‘Friend of a Friend’, which finds Yorke’s choirboy croon take centre stage. The lyrics exhume Yorke’s seemingly unabated ennui over the pace of our modern world (“Buried from the waist down…here the telephone lines are always busy”). It’s a perennial concern of his that dates back to 1997’s opus, OK Computer: an album that evinced pre-millennial angst over fast lives, globalisation, and alienation.
That said, Wall of Eyes finds The Smile in the ascendency. The trio’s compositions stretch, but they never drift. And therein lies their magic. This is headphone music pitch-perfect for nocturnal contemplation or aimless Sunday afternoon ambles through the park. An aesthete’s dream, but a radio plugger’s nightmare.
Wall of Eyes is like pouring Bitches Brew, the post-rock eccentricities of Fridge, and the avant-garde quirks of Goblin into a cocktail shaker and serving with a Sons of Kemet umbrella and a Radiohead lime. If you’re unsure as to how that might taste, then let me tell you: it may be acquired, but once accustomed, it’s rather moreish. Chin chin.