While operating under names that aren’t Radiohead, singer Thom Yorke and guitarist Jonny Greenwood are able to break away from the image of their band that has, in some cult-like circles, reached more-than-a-band status.
Yorke’s extra-Radiohead ventures include the formation of supergroup Atoms For Peace and a series of solo projects. Greenwood has built up a career as a composer, scoring award-winning soundtracks and appearing in a Harry Potter deleted scene.
Radiohead has been on hiatus since 2018, but Yorke and Greenwood are back to doing what they have done for 30 years—pushing the boundaries of rock music.
Released Jan. 26, Wall of Eyes is the second studio album from The Smile, a trio made up of the aforementioned Yorke and Greenwood, and Radiohead’s drummer Tom Skinner. The group started working together during the pandemic and released its debut project, A Light for Attracting Attention, to a unanimously positive critical reception in 2022.
Wall of Eyes’ eight tracks is five fewer than The Smile’s debut project, but its run time is only about eight minutes less, owing to the fact that all but one track on Wall of Eyes exceeds five minutes.
A Light for Attracting Attention was unique, yet reminiscent of Radiohead in a way that Wall of Eyes is not. It took two albums to get to this point, but Yorke and Greenwood’s music has progressed past what it was under Radiohead. It isn’t necessarily better, but it is an evolution.
The Smile’s unique direction on Wall of Eyes was evident from the beginning, with the release of its single “Bending Hectic” in June 2023. The just over eight-minute track is the band at its best.
Yorke’s characteristically yearning lyricism and storytelling are woven throughout the track, and Greenwood reinvents the guitar by crafting a melodic string accompaniment. Skinner sprinkles his drums across “Bending Hectic,” which, for the first half, lacks any semblance of a time signature.
The song opens with a vivid description of Yorke at the wheel of a vintage convertible racing across an Italian mountainside.
“We’re coming to a bend now / Skidding ’round the hairpin,” he sings. “Time is kind of frozen / As you’re gazing at the view / … / No one’s gonna bring me down, no / No way and no how / I’m letting go of the wheel.”
Meandering bass and guitar lines walk the melodic song forward through the chorus and verse until Yorke once again muses, “I’m letting go of the wheel.”
Suddenly, Greenwood’s wistful strings fade into tense dissonance and the guitar, bass, and drum tracks go silent. The shrill strings crescendo and grow sharper, leaving the track suspended in time. Greenwood interrupts this manufactured vertigo with a thundering, grungy guitar chord.
Skinner comes in with a symbol crash and suddenly, “Bending Hectic” is a booming ’90s garage rock song. It’s the most fun moment on any track from The Smile, and the climax of the most memorable song on Wall of Eyes.
The album’s opener and second single, “Wall of Eyes,” sees The Smile operating on a polar opposite of the frantic “Bending Hectic.”
“Wall of Eyes” sets the album’s course with a simple, bright acoustic guitar pattern that sounds more typical of a bossa nova song than a Greenwood project. Descending strings and ominous drum patterns in the background, paired with Yorke’s ever-gloomy lyrics, emphasize that this album isn’t all smiles.
The album’s third track, “Read the Room” is its least somber and most palatable. It opens with a playful guitar riff and regular drum pattern, and it maintains both of these, with a few key changes, through two verses.
Upon reaching the chorus, however, Greenwood’s heavy guitar vanishes in favor of a nursery-rhyme-like melody. When the guitar comes back, Skinner pairs it with a loud, confused drum pattern, making the track gradually more tense.
The grungier, upbeat moments of Wall of Eyes are some of the most entertaining, but the album makes significant strides on its slower tracks.
Of these, the album’s last single “Friend of a Friend” stands out. It is the shortest and possibly simplest track on the album, but the song is neither short nor simple. Yorke guides his listener through a bitter glimpse of the pandemic-era world.
“All the window balconies, they seem so flimsy,” Yorke sings. “Our friends step out to talk and wave and catch a piece of sun.”
Greenwood trades his guitar for a piano throughout the song, giving it a more traditional feel as a saxophone and a string ensemble glide through the background. Like many tracks on Wall of Eyes, “Friend of a Friend” features a dissonant, string-led crescendo towards the end before settling with a melodic outro.
A Light for Attracting Attention succeeded as a Radiohead offshoot album. It was inventive without ruffling too many feathers, and gave listeners what they wanted, short of a Radiohead reunion. The album functioned as a series of Radiohead B-sides, with some exceptions.
Wall of Eyes takes a different, but not unwelcome, approach. It is the second album from The Smile, but feels like its first true album. Yorke and Greenwood remain constant in their virtuosity, but it is distinctly not a Radiohead project.
Wall of Eyes is to The Smile what The Bends was to Radiohead. The first album was good, but it wasn’t revolutionary. Now two albums into The Smile, Yorke, Greenwood, and Skinner have settled in.