To be or not to be the Radiohead), this is the question! But is it really so? Ever since it became known that Thom Yorke  and Jonny Greenwood had started a band called The Smile, the debate focused, perhaps inevitably, on what and how much the new project carried over from the parent band.

If the first single “You Will Never Work in Television Again” seemed to suggest a project that played the “back to basics” card to recapture  the freshness and enthusiasm of the past, their first album “A Light for Attracting Attention” had, instead, forcefully reiterated the specter of Radiohead. A ghost that had materialized in a series of songs of really high quality and in a work that on the whole lived up to the names involved, even if weighed down by a certain unevenness and a setlist that would have benefited from some cuts. Two years later, however, the impression is that that record suffered, in its overall reception, from the temptation to focus more on the question “Why use a different name to make an album that basically sounds like a Radiohead one?” than on the quality of the album itself or, for example, on the drummer’s Tom Skinner (the drummer and the “intruder” of the case) contribution,. On the other hand, The Smile project appeared more like an impromptu parenthesis waiting for a new work by the Oxford band, than a project intended to last.

But, first the majestic single “Bending Hectic” in the spring of 2023, then the announcement of the early 2024 release of a new record, more decisively posed again the question, “Who then are The Smile?” 

“Wall of Eyes”, therefore, brought upon itself the burden of answering, this time more decisively, the question. And, listening to the record provides a self-evident answer: this is a trio composed of two-thirds of Radiohead’s creative soul and a jazz-trained drummer (but also keyboardist). An absolute platitude that, however, hides between the lines a number of significant implications.

First, the revival of The Smile project appears to be a self-affirmation of the Yorke-Greenwood duo. We will probably never know the real reasons for the temporary (?) disengagement from the parent company. Whether it is due to the desire to move more nimbly, without external pressures (media, record company, etc.) and internal constraints (democracy and compromises among the 5 members), the reluctance of the other 3 members to work on a new Radiohead album, the desire to collaborate with different musicians, or something else; what seems certain, however, is that the current priority of the two musicians is to work together in the studio and on stage, no matter under what moniker.

And the very ability of their bond to transcend Radiohead’s brand tells us several things: first, that this is a strong partnership that, contrary to what one might have thought until recently, has not been worn down by the routine of show business. The gradual time dilation between Radiohead’s albums might have led one to think that Yorke and Greenwood were no longer so interested in working together, but that it was more a sort of contractual duty; although, it must be said, the results continued to be excellent, if we consider “Moon Shaped Pool,” for example. 

The two albums only a couple of years apart under the name The Smile, on the other hand, seem to suggest just the opposite and indicate a sort of artistic symbiosis between the two: if Thom is one of the very few musicians who manages to snatch Jonny from his gilded exile as a contemporary composer and bring him back to the song form, the latter is the only one who manages to bring the other out of his musical comfort zone imprisoned in a sort of authorial mono-tony in electronic sauce (something that has never succeeded even for Nigel Godrich or the renowned members of Atoms For Peace).

A strong bond that brings two positive aspects: on the one hand, the certification that one of the last truly important partnerships in the middle ground between mainstream rock and experimentation still enjoys excellent health, and on the other hand, that the two have also found a way to escape the not entirely unfounded accusations of deja vu of their latest musical releases. And this is where Tom Skinner comes in: the one who represents the third vertex of the triangle, but more importantly, the outsider in the Radiohead ecosystem, who has the task (burden or honor) of turning the tables on them. A responsibility also sanctioned by the choice of crediting the songs collectively under the name The Smile, thus formalizing a deep involvement of the drummer.

On the first record his contribution had been notable and strongly recognizable through a polyrhythmic approach, quite different from Phil Selway’s more rock-oriented style. Despite this, compared to the bulky authorial imprint of Yorke and Greenwood, his contribution had generally been overshadowed in discussions.

If, at first glance, “Wall of Eyes” seems to reduce the contribution of Skinner’s drumming, by virtue of more rhythmically low-key episodes, in fact his contribution to the new album is, if not greater, more subtle and profound (not forgetting, of course, that Skinner is also in charge, along with the other two, of keyboard and synth textures). In a sense, the drummer showcases a style that is due to his jazz training, capable of emphasizing dynamics and space/silence, making his mark even when drumming is seemingly in the background.

Let’s consider, for example, the title track, where Skinner provides the song with a “slender, but robust” bossa nova skeleton, combined with an impressionistic use of timpani and electronically treated percussion; or “Teleharmonic”, which grows around the basic rhythm created by the drumsticks on the edge of the drums, enriched progressively, but discreetly, by the rustling of syncopated cymbals and timpani. But also “I quit”, where the reiteration of a simple but highly effective pattern complements the treated guitar on which the song is built, or, again, the orchestral ballad, “You know me!” where percussion mingles with the other elements, providing a rhythm that serves as a kind of heartbeat.

The Smile - Wall Of Eyes (Official Video)

Instead, we find a drumming similar to that of the first album in tracks that feature odd times and intricate rhythms, such as “Read the Room” and “Under our Pillows” or in the crescendos of “Friend of a Friend” and “Bending Hectic”. Skinner’s technical expertise, put strictly at the service of the music, seems to evoke in these tracks the spirit of the best prog drummers (Michael Giles or  Bill Bruford rather than Carl Palmer, to be clear).

And it is precisely these tracks that showcase the different and adventurous direction taken by the trio. Consider, for example, “Under our Pillows”: a mini-suite whose first part features the atonal/rhythmic/almost-Crymsonian approach that has been haunting  Greenwood as Guitar player for some time, then eases into a harrowing middle section that rests on Skinner’s motorik and, finally, dissolves into an ambient noise finale. The result is a track that, minus obvious Yorke’s vocal suggestions, is different from the classic Radioheadian sound. The same can be said of “Read the Room”. similarly structured in multiple sections, with Jonny’s Frippian guitar  leading the way once again in the opening and conclusion, but this time along with Thom’s evocative vocals, amplified in an effectively enveloping manner.

The Smile - Under Our Pillows

In this regard, it should be noted that “Wall of eyes” represents Yorke and Greenwood’s first album without Nigel Godrich’s production since “The Bends”. His place was taken with excellent results by Sam Petts-Davies, formerly sound engineer of “A moon shaped Pool” and the trio’s first album. And, if at first glance the sound seems the same, structured on extreme layering, listen after listen one notices that the production is less characterized by the compression typical of Godrich’s sound, but benefits from a greater airiness and more space between sound elements. At the end of the day then, even the change in the sound booth helped to draw a sharper line between Radiohead and The Smile (ed. it appears that Godrich was not involved due to a prior engagement, which given the coincidence in time could be identified in Idles’ “Tangk”; if so, we could say that both groups and especially we listeners benefited from that circumstance…).

Summing up, then, what comes out is a decidedly more mature and complete album than the debut; a record that shows a trio that has finally become a band in its own right in terms of identity and cohesion, most likely matured also thanks to live performances (which seem to be “on Fire”). A work where Yorke and Greenwood, free from the obsession with differentiating themselves from the parent group, but focusing on writing and sound with an adventurous flair and with an increasing involvement of Skinner, manage once again to broaden their sonic and authorial horizon, already leaving a deep and indelible mark on 2024 at the beginning of the year. 

What more could you want? 

So long live Radiohead, the Yorke-Greenwood duo, but most of all The Smile!