The Smile started as a COVID lockdown project. Jonny Greenwood, Radiohead multi-instrumentalist and celebrated composer, was holed up at home, writing lots of riffs, and Thom Yorke, his most famous bandmate, was around to help him flesh them out. Greenwood and Yorke hooked up with powerhouse jazz drummer Tom Skinner, and they banged out A Light For Attracting Attention, the Smile’s 2022 debut. It seemed at first like another fascinating detour for a couple of musicians who have too many ideas to confine to one band. It was an album to file alongside Yorke’s solo catalog, or Atoms For Peace, his short-lived supergroup with Flea—more than good enough to justify its side-project status, but serving for many fans as a holdover while we await the next transmission from Radiohead proper.
Two years later, the side project is looking more and more like the main event. Last week the Smile released a spectacular second album, Wall of Eyes; the trio will be touring across Europe all spring and summer. Meanwhile, Radiohead hasn’t released an album since 2016's A Moon Shaped Pool or played live since 2018. Guitarist Ed O’Brien said in 2022 that he’s not sure if they’ll make music together again, and longtime producer Nigel Godrich has expressed similar uncertainty about whether there will ever be another Radiohead album. When drummer Phil Selway told an interviewer in early 2023 that the band planned to “get together” sometime that year, the rock press treated that scrap of information as headline news. If anything, it felt like an indicator of just how precarious this beloved band’s status has come to seem: even the prospect of five old friends shooting the breeze over a few pints was now a major development.
Fortunately, The Smile is an ideal next project for the two men who have always come across as Radiohead’s core braintrust. Yorke and Greenwood are neither abandoning the strengths of their most famous group nor using them as a crutch: Wall of Eyes has all the sonic adventure, compositional intricacy, and deep feeling you’d expect from them, but it isn’t trying to pass itself off as a Radiohead album. Compared to the cerebral modern-classical stylings of A Moon Shaped Pool and the blippy electronic minimalism of The King of Limbs, the Smile sounds much more like a band. More specifically, believe it or not, it often sounds like a progressive rock band.
Maybe Skinner, a percussion virtuoso who is the only member from outside of Radiohead, energized the other two to try out some complicated new rhythms. Maybe the crop of younger English groups who unabashedly channel the grandeur of Yes and King Crimson renewed Yorke and Greenwood’s interest in the sort of sprawling multi-part song structure they began investigating around the time of “Paranoid Android.” Whatever the case, when Yorke laughingly promised a BBC Radio 6 presenter in January that the music is “not prog,” he was protesting too much. Just watch this live video of Wall of Eyes standout “Read the Room,” with Yorke shredding bass guitar and singing androgynous high notes with a power trio in 11/8 time, and try to tell me he’s not in his Geddy Lee era.
Though the songs on Wall of Eyes come withhas plenty of orchestral and digital accouterments, the conversational interplay between the Smile’s three chief instrumentalists provides the music’s core momentum. That may be the greatest difference between this album and Radiohead’s recent work, which could sometimes feel like it was being beamed directly from the members’ brains to the tape. Even when they were playing acoustic instruments, they did so with a certain affective distance, with as little of the friction of hands on strings and sticks as possible coming between a song’s conception and its recording. Wall of Eyes, on the other hand, is thoroughly marked by its creators’ sensibilities as players, not just composers. Greenwood is the best he’s ever sounded as a guitarist, filling his lines with delicately arcing bends and clusters of pinprick dissonance. Yorke has never really been known as an instrumentalist, so it’s a real treat to hear him play bass so committedly, especially on “Bending Hectic,” whose improvised-sounding introduction has the incense whiff of 1970s spiritual jazz.
If you’re a Radiohead fan and Smile skeptic, I advise you to throw that song on, close your eyes, and listen intently for eight minutes, from hushed opening bars to crashing conclusion. Where Radiohead takes careful restraint as a guiding principle, the Smile just goes for it: there’s plenty of gorgeous nuance here, but also the sort of giddy reach-for-the-cheap-seats climax that their other group wouldn’t dream of indulging. Perhaps there will be a new Radiohead album next year, or the year after. Phil Selway, at least, seems to think there’s gas left in their tank. But judging by the tone of the Smile’s BBC 6 interview, they’re just getting started. If they keep making albums as good as Wall of Eyes, Yorke and Greenwood can take as long as they want before getting the old band back together.
Originally Appeared on GQ