Review – The Smile

Thursday 3 June 2022

Manchester Academy

Radiohead members bring new band The Smile to Manchester

*****

Last time Radiohead played in Manchester was five years ago, when the Manchester Bombing forced the Arena to close and the gig was moved to Old Trafford Cricket Ground. It was an emotional evening, with the crowd singing Karma Police, ‘For a minute there I lost myself’, which became even more poignant in that context. Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood returned with their new band The Smile, and again there was a change of venue, from The Albert Hall to The Academy, but this time for a more benign reason, described as ‘production issues’.

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Radiohead’s seminal album OK Computer, and many bands would have marked it with a world tour, promising to ‘play the whole classic album in full.’ It would be hard to criticise them if they had decided to do so, and many fans would certainly have appreciated it. Instead, Yorke and Greenwood decided to do something radically different, to form a new band with drummer Tom Skinner from the jazz group Sons of Kemet. Thom Yorke’s distinctive falsetto vocals and Jonny Greenwood’s intense guitar playing provide a strong link to Radiohead, but The Smile are far from being a slimmed-down version of the famous band. The most obvious musical link appears in the song You Will Never Work in Television Again which looks back to the post-punk of the early Radiohead era of The Bends.

But both men have moved on; it seems unlikely that they will ever write a song like Creep again. Thom Yorke has released some excellent solo albums, in particular Anima from 2019, and Jonny Greenwood has written Oscar-nominated film scores Phantom Thread and The Power of the Dog. So it’s no surprise that The Smile’s new album A Light for Attracting Attention has moved on from Radiohead in style. And to stress that they aren’t Radiohead, the new band didn’t play any songs from the band’s rich back catalogue, restricting themselves to playing only one song not written by The Smile, a compelling version of Thom Yorke’s solo single Feeling Pulled Apart by Horses in the encore.

The role that Tom Skinner plays in the band shouldn’t be underestimated. He brought a more loose-limbed, jazz style to many of the songs, and the rhythmic complexity and precision of the intertwining instrumental and vocal lines was a highlight of the evening, starting with the pulsating synths of The Same which opened the gig. Thom Yorke’s voice was a strong and emotive as it has ever been; sometimes it felt as he if was an ascetic solo troubadour in troubled times. Elsewhere he was nearly drowned out in a maelstrom of psychedelic sound that was reminiscent of early Pink Floyd instrumentals. Jonny Greenwood brought a funky swagger to some of his basslines, as well as his more familiar introspective guitar-playing. Sequenced synth lines wrapped around the band, weaving in and out like vines around a tree. The band have created their own style, making them hard to categorise, a mesmerizing mix of post-rock, math rock, contemplative balladry, and the complex time signatures of prog rock. The audience listened intensely, with some members gently swaying to the hypnotic beats. 30 years since Radiohead released Creep as their first single, members of the band continue to innovate, and to bring their audience with them as their musical journey continues.

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