Beandon’s Musical Corner: ‘Wall of Eyes’ by The Smile

Feb. 25, 2024, 12:41 p.m.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and contains subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.

Radiohead are impossibly good. Over nine albums and 30 years, they have never made a bad record — I will even defend the hour-long political sprawl “Hail to the Thief” and the loopy delirium of “The King of Limbs” as being almost overlooked amidst today’s frivolous critical climate. (You might be asking about their first record, “Pablo Honey.” Just because they haven’t made a bad album doesn’t mean it’s good!) And for full disclosure, they’re a strong contender for my favorite band.

As Radiohead drag their feet on a tenth studio album, eager listeners have become acquainted with a myriad side projects from various members of the band: Ed O’Brien released a middling pandemic album under the name EOB, Colin Greenwood is touring around with Nick Cave and Phil Selway released a stunningly boring chamber pop album. 

The Smile is yet another Radiohead side-project, this time helmed by vocalist Thom Yorke, guitarist Jonny Greenwood and Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner. As is the case with the aforementioned projects, the band (understandably though unfortunately) lives in the shadow of the most important rock group of the past few decades. No big deal. 

But The Smile doesn’t seem to care about all of this added pressure: their music sounds inviting, organic and — against all odds — carefree. Fresh off the heels of their adventurous first record, “A Light for Attracting Attention” (2022), they went back to the studio and continued to carve a jazzier, more atmospheric niche within the context of their larger discographies. I am happy to report that The Smile’s new record “Wall of Eyes” is the first great record of 2024. 

I think the band understood that the sound of their first album could only take them so far. Don’t get me wrong: their first record made my best of 2022 list, and I think it continues to surprise two years and dozens of listens later. But the mellower sound of “Wall of Eyes” does wonders for expanding the scope of the project. Each band member leans even further into their respective strengths: Yorke’s rich falsetto, Greenwood’s avant-garde compositional brilliance and Skinner’s penchant for complex, jazzy rhythms converge into an album that only these three musicians could make.

Yorke and Greenwood have always been furious experimentalists, integrating walls of harsh noise into their early grunge-influenced Britpop or computer bleeps into their progressive rock epics. But the real instrumental brilliance of the album is found in Tom Skinner’s formidable, nimble jazz drumming. He is the glue for every disparate element here, always serving the song while never failing to add a unique, playful edge to each composition. He has a very difficult job — playing in the place of Phil Selway, one of rock’s most reliable drummers — that he utterly nails across all eight tracks. 

There is far more than meets the eye with virtually every song here. Take for instance the opener, a vaguely samba title track. The instrumental balances its 5/4 time signature wisely, featuring cinematic strings alongside the muted clunk of toms and cross-stick snare work. This in turn leaves room for Thom’s lyrics about an encroaching surveillance state, the titular “Wall of Eyes.” It’s an unassuming though rewarding track, complete with an ending jazz convulsion that hints at its underlying musical complexity.

“Read The Room” is the band at their showiest, flexing flashy math-rock guitars and a rock-solid drum groove over Yorke’s bitter snarl. “Now I am gonna count to three / Keep this shit away from me / Honestly? / Maybe you should read the room,” he sings over thunderous drum fills and distorted bass riffage. Across the album’s mere eight tracks, this is the song that could most easily be called “rock,” especially when its krautrock coda finally kicks in.

But the album’s best track is the eight-minute behemoth “Bending Hectic.” In an article packed with superlatives, I will add one more: this is one of the best compositions any of these musicians have ever released. While Greenwood has always been a noisy, uber-talented guitarist, I did not have a full-fledged post-metal explosion on this year’s bingo card. That’s right — they haven’t sounded this loud since “Bodysnatchers.”

Greenwood uses a bizarre technique of continually de-tuning then re-tuning his guitar — literally “Bending Hectic” — to add a lopsided, drunken sound to the instrumental. The song describes a harrowing car crash where a narrator is “seeing double,” so this instrumental choice isn’t aimless noodling. About five and a half minutes into the song, shrill strings begin to crowd the mix à la The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.”

Then we’re hit with soaring guitars, bursts of processed background vocals from Yorke (“Turn!”) and triumphant, crash-heavy drumming. You never expect to refer to a nearly ten minute song from a side project’s sophomore album as “exciting,” but this track is truly special. 

“You Know Me!” has the unfortunate role of immediately following the track (and closing the album). It’s a fine song, but the album should have ended with the masterful “Bending Hectic,” an auditory exclamation mark that would have replaced the ironic punctuation at the end of this underwhelming ballad’s title.

The Smile is a testament to what these musical geniuses can do when freed from the standards of having to make an “important,” capital-A “Album” under the Radiohead moniker. Their range has already proven to be boundless: “Creep” is regularly covered on terrible reality television talent shows, Jonny Greenwood is a prolific film composer working for the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson and they’ve taken hard left turns into every genre from psychedelic folk to avant-garde electronic. With The Smile, Yorke and Greenwood add yet another example of their Midas touch, as if we needed more proof.

Brandon Rupp '25 is a columnist for the Arts & Life section who served as the Vol. 263 Music Desk Editor. Contact him at rupp 'at' to tell him how much you respect his rigid journalistic integrity (or to send him music to take a look at). He appreciates that you are reading his bio.

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