There’s terror beneath the birdsong and sipped tea of quaint, quiet village life.
This was the message of The Wicker Man, Robin Hardy’s cult 1973 horror that saw a stern Christian policeman venture to a remote Scottish island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. Pry beyond the bunting and hanging baskets and nursery rhyme twee of a place like fictional Scottish island Summerisle, the film’s Sgt Howie gruesomely discovered, and something darker often lurks: simmering beneath the pleasantries, buried beneath the daisies, torched upon a sunny hilltop, screams carrying over the prairie.
The video to the long-awaited new Radiohead single, ‘Burn The Witch’, packs a similar warning. A stop-motion rendering of the horrors of Summerisle, the clip’s like an episode of British kids TV staple Postman Pat, were Pat to ditch Royal Mail (everyone’s on email now anyways) for Pagan rituals and blood sacrifice. Sword-wielding masked men dance, slaughtered animals drip copper blood and a clipboard-carrying everyman is burnt alive. Thom Yorke dad-dancing it ain’t.
Directed by Chris Hopewell, who worked with the band on their 2003 single ‘There There’, it’s a fitting accompaniment to a song that’s tense in a way Radiohead have seldom sounded before. The five years between 2011’s The King Of Limbs and this summer’s ninth LP, rumoured to be titled Dawn Chorus, is as long as fans have ever had to wait for new music from Thom Yorke and co. ‘Burn The Witch’, in all its gnarled orchestral glory, full of synth drones, is as concussive and disturbing a return as could be imagined: delving into new territory just as, nine albums in, you might have wondered what new territory they have left to explore.
That territory, you might argue, is borderline horror movie music. Where once a Radiohead song without guitars might have suggested Johnny Greenwood had been sidelined, his influence here is obvious: its strained strings reminscent of the creeping dread of his soundtrack work on There Will Be Blood. There’s echoes too of Goblin’s score to Dario Argento’s Suspiria, with only Yorke’s delicate vocal prising the track back from a full-on air of terror.
Lyrically, Yorke is typically poetically vague. “Stay in the shadows, cheer at the gallows,” he begins, as the song whirs into life. “This is a round-up, this is a low-flying panic attack.” Fans as ever will feverishly pick at it for allegory. But whatever its meaning, despite the song having been kicking around since 2002 (the title of the song can be glimpsed in the original artwork to Hail To The Thief) ‘Burn The Witch’ sounds like 2016 has so far felt: tense, fuggy, wrung with anxiety.
What ‘Burn The Witch’ means for the ninth Radiohead album is as yet unknown: when it’s arriving, what it will sound like, and if the rest of it will feel as filmic and sinister is anyone’s guess. What we do know is, as a first glimpse of one of the year’s most anticipated releases, on which Radiohead for the first time in a long time have something to prove after the slightly maligned King Of Limbs – ‘Burn The Witch’ is pretty bewitching indeed.
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