Thom Yorke – Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes

I staved off Radiohead for years, and I’m such a fool for it. It’s because I didn’t want to associate with those fair-weather kids at school who generally liked crap music (like Blink 182 or Thirsty Merc or that Metallica album with ‘Enter Sandman’ on it); these kids happened to go on about Radiohead, too. I’d point to Radiohead’s refusal to play Creep at concerts as justification of my prejudice.

Thom Yorke

Not content with being one of the most influential musicians of his generation, Thom Yorke has shaken things up again with his new solo LP Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes.

The Wikipedia page for the song says: “Attendees of Radiohead’s early gigs often exhibited little interest in the band’s other songs, causing the band to react against ‘Creep’ and play it less often during the mid-to-late 1990s.” Even Radiohead don’t like these kids.

Nevertheless, I’m a fool for having ignored them. Radiohead are really, really good, very enjoyable and really cool as well – when you’ve been in South Park and not made fun of, then you really know you’re cool. The Bends and OK Computer are quite solid albums, but their mopey stuff ain’t for me. However their most remarkable achievement was in twisting their sound so violently towards electronica and still managing to retain their gloriousness, making engaging, never-old, boundary-pushing music. I’m still catching up on it.

To much hoopla, Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke has just released his second solo album, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes. That’s not the interesting bit, however – the hubbub you can hear is coming from his decision to release the album solely via what is called a ‘BitTorrent bundle’. For want of actually discussing the music, and not the distribution method, I will leave all explanation of the mechanics of the distribution and how you can get your very own copy until the end. When In Rainbows was released on a pay-what-you-want basis, everyone sort of forgot to say how good the album was.

Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, on the face of it, is an understated, eclectic electronica album that for the most part sounds like a simmering digital fire, licks of synths and cracks of drum loops jumping up prominently, with Yorke providing some incensual soothing shamanistic whisperings. If you switched Yorke’s indistinguishable voice out for an unknown, this record would be hailed as smashing debut for a new band with a new sound.

The avant-garde attitude of Yorke’s output is again on show in this album: random sounds are put together, and somehow manages to work brilliantly, with an outcome entirely the opposite of Brokencyde’s experimentation. In There is No Ice (For My Drink), a morse code-like sound comes in out of nowhere as a new layer, and Yorke isn’t done with enough weirdness, as a few bars later a looped voice comes in that has been transmogrified to resemble alien jazz scat.

This reminds of something I read about the Radiohead song Idioteque, the digital instrumental power punch from Kid A. The song was conceived by an hour long session that a band member had undertaken with various electronic equipment, just by himself one day. This band member handed over the whole 60 minute tape recording from his little experimentation to Yorke, who listened to all of it and managed to pick out a 1 or 2 minute piece, which became Idioteque. I guess that’s why people get called geniuses – Yorke found a gold musical needle in a haystack.

While I really appreciate Yorke’s experimental and ambitious approach, after listening to this album a few times, and reading around what people are saying, the main musical thread of Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes begins to sound like Radiohead, without guitars. Which then makes you wonder that that basically is what a solo Thom Yorke is – the singing and keyboard cogs of the Radiohead machine. As his solo work isn’t as deviant from his day job as Dallas Green’s (aka City & Colour) was from Alexisonfire, it also makes you wonder if the old adage that married couples begin to look like each other as time passes on is also true for such long-serving bands like Radiohead. And that thought makes me shudder.

Tim Jonze, of The Guardian, uses the word ‘unsurprising’ to describe this album, which fits in with my tangent about Dallas Green. It’s true though, even if it’s unfair for a band that has basically been as avant-garde as you can be in the post-modern world. But it’s unsurprising in the way that a steak is unsurprising, but always delicious. Moreover, its two best tracks are the most unsurprising, with Interference sounding like a song he intended to duet on with Trent Reznor, and Motherlode the central track of the album, acting as a microcosm of the album’s intentions in its experimental electronica eclecticism.

This album is still a gigantic fuzz to me. It takes me about 10 album listens or so to truly understand an album. I have just listened to it for the 4th time, this time track-by-track, and it didn’t sound as good as the first 3 times. However, I won’t probably be able to ascertain any definite thoughts about this album until at least next Tuesday. I’d tell youse to buy it, but y’know whatever, do what you want. If you do want to buy it, but are a bit perplexed or overwhelmed by the techmological skills needed, then look no further than Nick’s handy hints down below. Hooray!

Nick’s Handy Hints

What is a BitTorrent bundle?

A BitTorrent bundle is a digital method of distributing media – in this case, music. Users enter their email, social network details or pay a small price to access the bundle (Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is the first bundle to be for a price). The users then download the bundle via a torrent client.

What’s so special about it?

Torrenting is the method mainly associated with illegal downloading – music, TV shows, movies and the like. Ever head of The Pirate Bay? That is the most popular place for finding torrents of such things.

BitTorrent made its name creating a program that downloads torrents for you. As torrents are commonly used to access music illegally, you can see why Yorke has created such a stir using this method to distribute his new album.

Why is Thom Yorke using this method?

There are other digital retailers out there, like Spotify and iTunes, that are quite popular and well-known. However, these retailers have cut favourable deals with record labels less beneficial for artists on a money-earnt-per-dollar basis than already exists for traditional physical retailing.

Without a middle-man as such, BitTorrent offers a more profitable retailing avenue. As Matt Mason, chief content officer for BitTorrent, says:”We’re a technology company, we’re good at moving files”. The efficiency of the torrent system also means more money is saved from distribution costs.

BitTorrent isn’t the only torrent client, but approximately 40 million people use it per day, so reach is another important factor. Yorke has history in experimenting with new retail avenues, having released In Rainbows with Radiohead in 2007 on a pay-what-you-want basis. Selling it via the bundle also fits in with his general experimental modus operandi.

How do torrents work?

When you download using torrents, you download the file (using your torrent client) from other users, with the file broken up in many bits to ease and strengthen the downloading process. When the download is finished, the file is stitched back together and works like normal.

How do I download the Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes BitTorrent bundle?

First of all, if you don’t have one, you’re going to have to download a torrent client. There’s many torrent clients available, but I use BitTorrent (you want the free one). After you’ve installed the client, you go onto Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes‘s bundle’s webpage and purchase the album, which will come in the form of a torrent file. This file is very small isn’t the actual album, though. Open the file, and your client should run and begin downloading the album.

The download shouldn’t take too long (depending on your internet speed), and when it’s finished it should be ready and waiting for you to enjoy. Welcome to the magical world of torrenting.



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