Music Reviews
Wall of Eyes

The Smile Wall of Eyes

(XL Recordings) Rating - 7/10

Having shunned the possibility of a new Radiohead album any time soon, Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood continue to embrace a less stressful path with a second The Smile release. Keenly aware that they'd never be able to fully meet expectations with their main project, the duo, alongside drummer Tom Skinner, adopt a looser, more cinematic expression.

Wall of Eyes makes it loud and clear that a proposition like The Smile is here to stay, laying to rest the idea that any other Radiohead member could ever replicate the identity they're gradually forging. While Skinner's contributions were more pummeling on their debut—and frankly, leaning in a more rock-driven bent—he shows his true versatility as a malleable performer. His measured, striding technique is too distinctive compared to Selway's twitchy groove on Read the Room, adopting hints of Ethiopian jazz before the trio lets loose with a winding coda.

Of course, Yorke wouldn't be Yorke if he didn't introduce some of his nervous delivery into the fray. Take Under Our Pillows, for example, where he weaves in his typical noodling guitar progressions before the trio breaks into a disciplined, yet hypnotic motorik beat. Their free-flowing character takes on different variations, using assistance from no other than the London Contemporary Orchestra to adopt a bevy of lush strings.

This brings up the potential debate of how influential Greenwood's experience scoring films was in forming Wall of Eyes' overall backbone. It's no accident how tracks like I Quit and You Know Me! practically discard any semblance of a propulsive drum beat. While the former has a beat funneled in deep muck, the piano-driven latter adopts a sweeping finale akin to Radiohead's muted last hurrah, A Moon Shaped Pool. Are these scrapped leftovers Greenwood is repurposing for this project? It's likely, but both are distinctive enough to fit the album's overall sequencing despite each not cohering in a linear sense.

That's not to say that shades of Radiohead's past work seep into the public's consciousness. Upon first impression, Bending Hectic brought much glee in creating the illusion that it somehow fits into the band's past work. And to an extent, it does. The spacious 8-minute track develops in a quiet, improvisational matter before bursting in swathes of guitar-driven noise in its conclusion. But if we were to compare it to Radiohead, it sounds like an inferior, if slightly disappointing, shadow of their very distant past. More relevant to this comparison is the jazzy, airy Friend of a Friend, which assumes a bright, Paul McCarthy-esque ballad over a shuffling rhythm vaguely reminiscent of Amnesiac standout Pyramid Song.

While Wall of Eyes captures the trio at their most musically freewheeling, it also loses the ordered potency of A Light for Attracting Attention. Yorke himself has also reverted to themes of self-identity more cryptically, making less of an impact compared to his sardonic candor identifying with the everyday anxieties of living in the outside world's structured chaos.

Still, it's clear that The Smile operates on their own accord. It may very well be their strength in elevating the much-maligned so-called side project. Navigating a less risk-averse path two albums in is the natural course to take, but it also sets a higher mark as they develop into, and this remains to be seen, an established act.