Radiohead – The King of Limbs (2011)

by Mike Mineo

The King of Limbs contains some of Radiohead’s most fascinating material to date, even if it lacks the infectious aspects of rock and electronic that their past releases flaunted. Their eighth LP sits more in the realm of Kid A and Amnesiac, consuming atmospheric releases that toyed with piano-laden ballads and choppy electronic experiments. Despite taking unexpected stylistic turns, depth was never question for either album. Amnesiac was the softer and more direct of the two, while the more boisterous Kid A achieved masterpiece status with its unique hybrid of Radiohead’s catchy alt-rock tendencies and variety of electronic fixtures, including slight elements of jazz and ambient music. Its genius can be found in its breathtaking range; densely layered epics like “Everything in Its Right Place” aligned cohesively with initially minimalist efforts like “Motion Picture Soundtrack”, both of which transformed from a hushed swirl of organ-keys and/or accordions into pulsating alt-rock and ardent orchestral flourishes, respectively. Along with OK Computer, it was the best example of Radiohead’s unmatched skills as tactful songwriters and masters of emotional representation. It flowed freely and beautifully without constraint.

Radiohead’s vast base of musical wits seems to expand with each passing release. They have impressed so much and so consistently throughout the years that few listeners are actively seeking another grand stylistic achievement. Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows are not necessarily classified as landmark stylistic achievements, but they are excellent albums that showed off the band’s already-illustrious discography and songwriting talents. It straddled middle-ground between their rhythmic-heavy electro experiments and vast alt-rock anthems, resulting in sometimes dreamy, occasionally chaotic sounds ranging from piano balladry and subdued acoustic folk to frenzied rock and murky dubstep. Though it did not initially seem like it, Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows are not too stylistically distant from one another. Their songs sounded like they could have been recorded at any point since OK Computer, making for a very retrospective feel that resulted in well-deserved acclaim. They were mature, sophisticated releases from a band that clearly learned from success. Neither overly ambitious nor too dumbed-down, they were about as excellent as one would expect.

Such tactful precision leads us to the understandable hype for The King of Limbs, an album that still sounds like Radiohead but with a presentation unlike anything the five-piece have released before. The band is certainly clinging up to aspects of today’s electronica, many of which they helped influence with their late ‘90s/early ‘00s releases. Flying Lotus is the comparison-of-the-moment, and certainly artists like Four Tet, Burial, and even Daedelus are not too far off either. But The King of Limbs is a distinctively Radiohead release at its core, and most comparisons are to artists that practically idolize Radiohead themselves. One of the most noticeable shifts for the band here is the involvement of drummer Phil Selway, long considered underrated and under-utilized. Ironically, his role here is occasionally over-emphasized. His technical precision remains impeccable, but many times his involvement seems too forced. In “Morning Mr Magpie” and “Feral”, his over-active drumming suffocates any melodic range the songs aspire to. His furious tempo and intricacy certainly assets his virtuosity, but the melodic appeal seems to be overlooked. Despite their prevalent technicalities, their dullness and complacency resemble loop-based automation more than intended.

In defense of Selway, this weakness is inherently due to the lack of actual songwriting on “Magpie” and “Feral”, not his drumming ability. Neither song goes anywhere, living off dully inspired repetition and fetishized sonic shifts uncharacteristic of the band. Repetition is acceptable if something bears worth repeating, but Thom Yorke’s lack of range and emotion combined with bland synthesized murmurs and over-emphasized percussion give listeners little worth pursuing or even playing again. The production is polished as usual, but the depth of songwriting on both tracks is surprisingly minimal for a band this capable. Fans of these songs tend to point to the wide variety of subtle sounds on each, best heard through $500 headphones, like the emergence of the fuzzy bass on “Feral” or the budding amp frequencies in “Magpie”. But unless you are an extreme audiophile who values small insignificant intricacies over melody and composition, the appeal of these songs will be underwhelming.

The King of Limbs... out now

You must be thinking at this point that it is overly compulsive to linger on two weak tracks like this. In most cases that would be true, but here “Magpie” and “Feral” account for one-fourth of the album. This leads us to another popular complaint: 37 minutes is not an acceptable length for an album with the (in)consistency of The King of Limbs. When half the songs on the first side of a release are mediocre or languidly dull, that is certainly an issue. Speculation that the album’s second half is yet to come is little more than wishful thinking but certainly warranted, as it is hard to imagine most fans being satisfied with the amount of substance here. Granted, there are not enough quality tracks here for The King of Limbs to qualify as one of Radiohead’s best, but that is not to say the album lacks substance altogether. “Little by Little”, “Lotus Flower”, “Codex”, and “Separator” are as good as anything on In Rainbows or Hail to the Thief, and “Bloom” works as well as any Radiohead opener with its hectic key arpeggio, soaring horns, and lamenting strings. It combines the subdued orchestral tendencies of Amnesiac with the free-jazz/electronic aspects of Kid A, and in doing that it kicks off The King of Limbs nicely.

Released just a few hours before the album, “Lotus Flower” may be the album’s best. Whereas I found Selway’s drumming on previous efforts to be overly enforced, his involvement here is perfect. The bass line moves with patience akin to the elegant “All I Need”, while the percussion presents a furious yet dynamic nature that adapts to Yorke’s excellent malleability. Around 03:20, when the ominous “Where I End and You Begin”-esque synth creeps in, he raises his pitch with illustrious luster. Yorke is more subdued here than on more anthemic efforts found on The Bends and OK Computer, but his artful method in building up to the explosive drum fill at 03:45, one of my favorite moments on the album, is flawless. His delivery in the verses near spoken-word, and his voice perks up melodically with each successive bridge and chorus. The impact is devastatingly haunting as a result, truly reminding us for the first time on The King of Limbs of Radiohead’s extraordinary ability.

While “Little by Little” is a fun and catchy effort that finds comparisons to both “Paranoid Android” and “Bones” with its heavy bass tones and mellow electric guitars, it is not particularly flashy or invigorating. It is a big breath of fresh air though, especially in between suffocated electronic-heavy efforts “Magpie” and “Feral”, and is a likely nominee to be a single. It is easy to see this one, with Jonny Greenwood’s signature guitar twang and Yorke’s squeaky-clean chorus, performing quite well on the charts. As far as emotional depth goes, it can be found almost exclusively on the second half of The King of Limbs. “Codex” is one of the most beautiful songs in the band’s catalog, cross-breeding the elegance of Amnesiac with the most lush efforts on OK Computer, like “No Surprises” and “Lucky”. Yorke harmonizing with the horns at 02:16 is pure beauty to the ears, serving as a moment that propels the song to great heights. It almost serves as a tease. If Radiohead would release an album full of lush, orchestral beauties like this, I doubt the result would be as polarizing. Particularly, the final bridge where strings and keys make for the most instrumentally powerful moment on the album creates a perfect ending for the tragically gorgeous track. Between this and the closing minute of “All I Need”, there should be no doubts as to Radiohead’s ability to produce beautiful orchestral compositions with a hint of post-classicism.

The last two tracks on The King of Limbs, “Give Up the Ghost” and “Separator”, are the least riskiest on the album. The former is a fairly basic acoustic effort that relies on Yorke’s crisply sonorous vocals more than the melody itself, which trickles slowly through acoustic strums as Yorke repeats “don’t haunt me” as a sort of rhythmic aid. An additional guitar arpeggio and horn can be heard in the background, but both are generally superfluous and overly reflective of the main melody. A jump in range just before the three-minute mark provides hope for variation, but unfortunately the track does not let the momentum carry it into anything resembling a hook. It sounds nice, but again – there is not much there. “Separator”, fortunately, closes the album on an extremely strong note. It would have fit seamlessly on In Rainbows, concluding with a distinctive psychedelic influence that – like “Codex” – teases us. It is hardly surprising that the best songs on The King of Limbs are the most organic. Hopefully it is something Radiohead will carry into the next release, which will hopefully avoid sounding anything like Atoms for Peace, which this album does on half the efforts. The King of Limbs is not a bad release by any means. But alongside the towering giants in Radiohead’s discography, it is among the weakest.

Radiohead – The King of Limbs

Radiohead – Separator

Official Site / MySpace / BUY

Mike Mineo

I'm the founder/editor of Obscure Sound, which was formed in 2006. Previously, I wrote for PopMatters and Stylus Magazine.

Send your music to [email protected].


  1. You’re overthinking this.

    Are you sure the criticism of Selway isn’t copped from a review of Pat Metheny’s Question & Answer, where reviewers hammered Roy Haynes’ “over-busy” drumming?

    How do you know whether it’s the songwriting or Selway? Does it have to be either?

    How do you know the songwriting aims and contexts?

    Less masturbation, more actual assessment, please.

  2. you’re actually accusing me of plagiarizing a Pat Metheny album review for a Radiohead review? that’s laughably unrealistic. so yes, I’m sure that I didn’t cop my personal opinion from a review I’ve never read. I’ve never even HEARD that album by Metheny, much less read any review of it. “over-busy” drumming is a relatively common weakness when attempting to compensate for sub-par songwriting. the criticism is nothing new in music; it just applies here well. note how I said in later tracks, like “Lotus Flower”, that Selway’s involvement is essentially perfect. he practically MAKES that wonderful song. so in my opinion, my criticism of “Magpie” and “Feral” is valid. if you disagree, then fine. but don’t accuse me of “copping” it from elsewhere.

    the insubstantial songwriting for “Magpie” and “Feral” dictates Selway to drum like this. his instruction here, specifically, is to present hectic, technically precise percussion, which he does excellently as usual. Selway is a phenomenal drummer who can do anything a songwriter can ask of him. I find no evolution in the songwriting of these two tracks though, and his drumming seems to over-compensate for this lack of substance. therefore, as I wrote in the review, it is my personal opinion that the weak songwriting on these tracks makes his percussive involvement seem worse than it really is, and for that we should not fault Selway’s drumming abilities and decision-making (unless he had a major hand in writing the song).

    I don’t know what you’re getting at by “less masturbation, more actual assessment”… I find this review to be pretty fair, noting the strengths and weaknesses of a highly anticipated album. I do believe the review is a bit too long, but it’s easy to understand why anyone can get carried away by a Radiohead review. after all, some people enjoy reading in-depth opinions of this. if you disagree with my opinions or find my writing to be bad, then fine. but never accuse someone of plagiarism unless you can back it up. since I gave this album a 7.5, did I “cop” that score from every other publication giving TKoL the same? you seem to be using that foolish logic.

  3. Thank you for your accurate, honest, and in-depth review of this album.
    Too many people simply think “Oh Radiohead, it MUST be amazing.” This album is great, but it is not revolutionary like OK Computer. I like that you clearly explained and went into the mechanics of why this album is not as good as some of their others.

    I understand it is your job to think critically about the music you review, too bad CF Oxtrot cannot. I am not quite sure what he is looking for considering this is a music review website.

  4. keep up the masturbation….a little slower….a little faster…..yes the jigsaw fell into place…hope you caught it on videotape…dont be a paranoid android i wont show it to anyone

  5. completely agree with your assesment. although, i still think that magpie rocks. i think my favorite part of this album is the phenomenal use of horns. simple and perfect.

  6. The atmospheric parts of this album are what really stood out for me – I mean, obviously we saw a bit of that in Thom Yorke’s past work, but I found more than a little bit of the Brian Eno “Music for Airports” in this album. I haven’t yet decided whether this is a good thing or not. It’s not Kid A, that’s for sure.

  7. definitely agree with you, Joe. the horn use was great whenever it was applied.
    you know that somewhat eerie instrumental part toward the end of “Codex”? I’d love to see Radiohead head in a more low-key direction like that. their songwriting can still be strong without anthemic oomph or “modern” electronic production, and I feel that there’s simply too much emphasis on the quantitative aspects of electronic production on some songs here.

    other tracks, though, are really heading the right direction. sure, this isn’t Radiohead’s best album by a mile, but it’s still an enjoyable release. Metacritic’s score of 80 or so seems about right. I still prefer In Rainbows significantly

  8. This review falls into the same trap most reviews of established artists seem to step right into. It recognizes the album’s place in the artist’s discography, sure, but not so much where it fits into the artists development. Yes, that sentence makes me cringe a little too, but my point is that musicians—the good ones, anyway—are constantly evolving. It’s like any creative endeavor. Radiohead’s constant evolution and stylistic exploration (cringe) is especially marked, however, so fans seem to miss the transition.

  9. that’s true criticism, but in my opinion this was a step backwards creatively for the band. it’s hard to call this release innovative in any capacity… it’s hardly the result of creativity as much as it is Thom’s recent interest in artists like Flying Lotus and UNKLE. I hate to say it, but many of the efforts on here sound like songs with middling songwriting coordinated to sound like recent influences.

  10. Radiohead is so hot!!!!! Them and Rick Fouche are gonna have the best material this year…TRUST!

  11. It seems like everyone is criticizing this album of the same things….
    People have talked so much about what this album didn’t do. No, Radiohead didn’t reinvent rock. No, Radiohead didn’t reinvent electronica. No, Radiohead didn’t reinvent the music industry.

    But so what? At some point we are all going to have to realize that Radiohead is just a band. The King of Limbs would have been rated higher by almost everyone if it had been released by a band without the amount of expectation that Radiohead has.

    It’s sad too, because its a great album!

  12. Legendary soul-disco artist Gwen McCrae of “Funky Sensation” and “Rockin’ Chair” fame releases new single. The new song “Now I Found Love” is an electrifying dance pop song yet has a unique blend of contemporary sounds with classic soul/R&B/Pop stylings.”Now I Found Love” was mixed/produced by Steve Sola aka The Mix King and composed by David Seagal. Released through *Plain Truth Entertainment.*

  13. Totally agree with “Luke Larsen” on this. It is a great album but it is overshadowed by the groups reputation – They are after all a bunch of art students from Oxford…They did not fall from the sky or get beamed here from another world!

    Since OK Computer; the populous seem to look at the band through misted glasses and no one really raves about their music anymore – Just their myth. They have become The Stone Roses but unlike The Stone Roses you can go and see Radiohead, buy their records, be an active follower – but Radiohead seem to have been raised into Gods….or at least Alien Gods – is this of their own doing – codex does sound like it was created somewhere other-worldly – – But i do still crave for Radiohead in Rock N’ Roll form.

    The King of Limbs does have some really epic and beautiful moments (if not in standard Rock N’ Roll form) – Give up the Ghost has been described as “like taking drugs”. At first you’re? expecting something to happen and it doesn’t, then as soon as you relax and just listen…something amazing starts to happen, then by the end you’re completely absorbed and on a different planet. It is another massive shift away from the standard guitar and drums blend of Rock but none-the-less beautiful.

    These Thom Yorkesque sounds of The King of Limbs is such a side-step away from current Oxford music. But it is clear to see how their early sounds are still influencing todays new bands. And thank the heavens for that.

    The King Of Limbs is fantastic…even only less fantastic than earlier works.

  14. if drugs were as addictive as “Give up the Ghost”, dealers would be out of business. the song has no replay value whatsoever. it’s a monotonous, repetitive bore in my opinion. I’ve seen both sides of the spectrum though; people tend to dismiss it as one of their worst songs, or one of their best. I can’t see what in the world could support the latter opinion, but it’s just that — an opinion.

  15. I think you can take away something nice from every track on the album. Is it their best? no, but their worst is most bands best in “my opinion”. The problem with Radiohead is that their expectation level is set so high and to me it is unfair. 8 tracks should be enough. If it were 12 to 15, that’s the first sign that your band(s) have lost it. Radiohead hasn’t, so good for them.

    If Radiohead fans or just fans in general went back and listened to some of their “Office Charts” from Dead Air Space then you would understand the direction of the album before the album was even released. Frankly, the only song that falls short for me on King of Limbs is Little By Little. You can swap that song out for “The Butcher” which was more rewarding to me.

    It’s funny that you feel Feral and Magpie are the weak songs on the album. I felt the exact opposite, but I agree that it has subtle qualities while supported by textural rhythms and you don’t need $500 headphones at all to grasp them.

    Selway’s contributions are apparent, but I think that Colin’s bass and Jonny’s compositional contributions were overlooked by many. I will be curious to see where Ed falls on this album.

    I guess I have more patience than others when it comes to King of Limbs allowing me to appreciate their compositions which focus more on rhythms and textures and pay attention less to where this stands when compared to Kid A or OK Computer. Lets face it, they are never and MOST are never coming close to those both in the context of when they came out and influence they had on a wide range of music. Or maybe they will. I think they are far from done whichever version of the band is produced next time.

    For better or worse they have evolved and changed their sound (thank god) not becoming a niche band like so many others. Can we appreciate their refusal to settle? I didn’t expect anything less from them and WAS expecting something different. I got it.

    I didn’t see any mention of how or when they will attempt to pull off the songs live. That is always something equally exciting in the Radiohead experience (aside from listening to their new album), watching the songs live. I cannot wait for the BBC “From the Basement” which will give all of us an intimate glimpse into the subtleties and contributions of the band in a KOL.

    As always with Radiohead, keep listening, you might hear something new.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.