The Smile Wall of Eyes Self Help Tapes / XL Recordings
On Wall of Eyes, The Smile go beyond mainstream rock mores in search of a more fluid musical universe. The second album by the experimental trio of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, plus former Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner, is a quietly brilliant work of outer-limits musical reconnaissance that feels at ease in its own powers.
True, moments on The Smile’s second album do sound like Radiohead. A record featuring Yorke’s emotive swoon and Jonny Greenwood’s unpredictable guitar innovations could hardly fail to. But whenever they do bring to mind their other band, as on Friend of a Friend, which gives a nod to Amnesiac’s Pyramid Song, it is only in passing. The song’s volatile gear-shifts, from major chords to minor, signpost the album’s general disinclination to sit still. In this regard, Friend of a Friend is reminiscent of the ever-evolving songs from the Beach Boys’ legendary lost album Smile, where Brian Wilson’s troubled emotional state and abundantly fertile musical imagination were reflected in contrasting sounds and emotions, moving from happiness to dismay and back at a lightning clip.
Sonically, Wall of Eyes is cut from a similar cloth as The Smile’s 2022 debut album, A Light for Attracting Attention; a percussive, jazz-inspired work that takes in swooping string arrangements and Yorke’s moody piano elegies. Greenwood has even gone so far as to say the music on the band’s second album is “pretty similar” to their debut, as the trio worked through a backlog of pandemic ideas.
But Greenwood is underselling his own record. Where A Light… added swinging drums to guitar lines that were in step with mainstream rock, Wall of Eyes uses the same basic ingredients to go further into the loose-limbed experimentalism only occasionally promised on their debut. There’s nothing that approaches rock’s traditional 4/4 groove until halfway through the third track, Read the Room, and even then, the music’s propulsive drive sounds more like Krautrock pioneers Can and Neu!
Wall of Eyes also suggests the improvised wash of Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden or even Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, which saw the jazz legend move away from the more structured chord sequences of hard bop towards a looser melodic style. Teleharmonic is based around a gnarled electronic motif, only really settling down when a bassline arrives two minutes in; while Bending Hectic floats free of structural constraint, lightly bending guitar riffs, cymbal crashes and eerie violin drones. The reverie is eventually interrupted by a gothic climax of heavy metal guitars. It helps that Skinner brings the dazzling form he displayed on his recent solo album, Voices of Bishara, to Wall of Eyes, steering the music into freeform beat puzzles that call back to jazz, Afrobeat and prog in their dizzying invention.
These layers of experimentation means that Wall of Eyes is not as immediate as its predecessor, which wore its oddness relatively lightly. Instead, this indifference to simple melodic patterns means that it may take a while for Bending Hectic’s gorgeously desolate vocal melody to imprint itself on your consciousness, or to make sense of a tender Yorke vocal line on I Quit that is shrouded in guitar tremolos and stuttering drum lines. This is a small sacrifice, though. Wall of Eyes is a refreshingly atypical work – one that takes The Smile into complex sonic spaces, without ever smothering the music’s emotional spark.