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Radiohead Welcomes The Past With 'Burn The Witch'

By Cameron Fowler
On May 4, 2016

Examining Radiohead’s career is a task in accepting new sounds, new sonic landscapes that use technology to further the music and in turn speak boldly through it. They are no strangers to change and obviously aren’t afraid to push themselves to new places that most groups have a hard time even comprehending. After a lukewarm reception on their previous album, “The King of Limbs,” the band does not seem phased. Trying to tell someone like Thom Yorke that you’re disappointed seems like a lost cause - Radiohead are exactly where they want to be.

    One of the most intriguing aspects of how Radiohead choose what songs they record is the appreciation they have for plucking songs from their live shows and completely turning them around in the studio. Songs like “Videotape” always linger around until they book the studio to crank out their next LP, and somehow the tunes they played years ago unexpectedly pop up on albums. But in looking at the past, Radiohead somehow carefully chooses theirfuture. Such is the example with their first single in five years, “Burn The Witch.”

    The song, which made its very modest debut on the band’s 2003 tour, was believed to be nothing but a daydream by fans. It’s one of those tunes that shouldn’t really be here now, but Radiohead loves taking the old and completely changing everything around. So in that way, “Burn The Witch” feels entirely new. However, the song is thematically familiar: Thom Yorke sings, pretty clearly, mind you, about cryptic examples of community and suspicion. Lyrically, the song is vague, but this is par for the course for Yorke. As the delicate drums and pronounced, meaty bass line dance around Yorke’s voice, it helps those Orwellian chunks of storytelling within the lyrics flow.

    What really punctuates the mood on this track is the jolty orchestral arrangement by Jonny Greenwood, who seems to have used his experience scoring Paul Thomas Anderson films as the main core for “Burn The Witch.” There is a strong sense of epic rock within this song in both the strings and the subdued use of drums, a deviation from the electric and rhythmic randomness of “The King of Limbs” Everything here is right where it needs to be, and the song’s uphill movement of intensity draws the listener in with sinister joy as the strings, along with Yorke’s wailing, create a hollow, disturbing force.

    That’s what “Burn The Witch” ultimately is: a joyous song about something horrible, yet by the end the looming danger is never actually heard. It’s a beautiful buildup of a song which should fit into wherever Radiohead’s upcoming ninth LP takes listeners. Even after the song ends, the darkness looms, and will surely stay there until the band takes its next step.

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