Radiohead offshoot The Smile have just announced the release of a second album, Wall of Eyes, alongside a UK/European tour. The trio comprises Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood with Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner. The announcement of the album came via the release of the title-track single and a Paul Thomas Anderson-directed music video.
Their new single ‘Wall of Eyes’ is a dark, lilting piece that bears an abiding tone of anxiety through its persistent, staggering guitar and weeping strings, evoking a reminiscence of the pleasant monotony of a Portishead song. The sporadic and infrequent changes in instrumentation create a structural stagnancy, isolating us within the soundscape; the dry, close-mic’d guitar contrasting Yorke’s heavily reverberant vocals and whining strings forces a perpetual disconcertment upon us. Though, a sense of familiarity bears throughout.
One should still come to question the emergence of The Smile given the unfaltering success of Radiohead. An obvious answer would tell us: it’s a medium to write different forms of music, but is it? Other Yorke projects have generally departed for a more distinct tone from Radiohead (solo works, Atoms for Peace), alike Greenwood’s more classically inspired film scoring (Phantom Thread, There Will Be Blood). However, a brief listen to their material would surprise us with a sound quite evocative of Radiohead. So, what is The Smile’s existence?
It is likely that The Smile’s formation acts as a vehicle for Yorke and Greenwood to further remove themselves from the confines of Radiohead’s notability. Performing in a band whose acclaim scales as high as Radiohead ironically comes with its limitations. Last year the band debuted their song ‘Bending Hectic’ at the Montreux Jazz Festival, displaying a movement away from the enclosure that Radiohead’s popularity in the public domain had become, broadening their listening demographic from the melancholic, emo teen. The Smile serves as a fresh context for Yorke and Greenwood to work within. Though, to some surprises, the band still echoes memories of Radiohead.
The Smile’s first album brought a movement towards post-punk music, drawing in aspects of experimentation that had been unheard of in Radiohead’s discography. This new single however brings perplexity as it displays an attraction to the lulling tone of Radiohead’s recent music, especially since it represents the album as title-track. More surprisingly, the single is quite absent from Skinner’s drumming, that being the most significant change in dynamic between The Smile and Radiohead. Aside from a muted, synthesised timpani sound, Skinner’s jazz-drumming background perhaps manifests itself differently through the off-beat acoustic guitar, strumming a rhythmic ostinato to a polymetric metre. This absence of percussion questions how far The Smile really is distancing itself from Radiohead when its album-defining track resists change. It makes us wonder whether this really is an attempt for Yorke and Greenwood to part from the “sound” of Radiohead, or rather a project to revert back without overwriting Radiohead’s legacy.
The separate project allows for them to continue a creative output together, to continue touring and writing without replacing the other Radiohead members from their own band. As made clear in interviews, those members have respectfully taken a pause to focus on their personal lives.
This leads us to ask if we will ever see Radiohead return again. It seems unlikely at this point for a revival, having released one album in over a decade. Though perhaps due to the activity of The Smile, we can hold a slightly higher confidence that the sub-project exists to allow for Radiohead’s future to remain unresolved. Although, Radiohead were arguably beginning to depart past the borders of what their “sound” was previously recognised as, reaching a creative climax with the ambient folk of recent album, A Moon Shaped Pool (2016). So, in this case The Smile could be an irrevocable departure, has Radiohead’s denouncement been realised?
Ultimately, it feels necessary for this extension band to have formed and to conjecture that The Smile exists as an appendage of creativity for Yorke and Greenwood, a new output for artistic media; to continue creating projects together that build on the inspiration of Radiohead without overwriting its legacy; to refrain from conclusively cutting off the identity of their past.
Image by Rosie Hodgson Smith.