A masterpiece in Manchester
James Himsworth
13:53 11th June 2018

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In Manchester it rains.  On the sunniest of days, a storm broke and the drenched audience streamed in to The Palace Theatre, steaming and buzzing with humid excitement.

To begin a show with avant-garde classical music is brave, but that’s what cellist and support act Oliver Coates did with some stunning Messiaen that was lapped up by the erudite listeners.  The electronic musings that later poured from his cello and laptop were a perfect appetiser.  

The main event was built around Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, the 2014 release of Thom Yorke’s solo work.  The music shows the same irreverent approach to harmony that we’ve come to expect from him, delving into unexpected colour palettes as sequences twist and turn through swelling textures and shifting sound worlds.  For all of this unsettling instability, the pieces feel fairly static in their tonal centre, wringing out every drop of tension from the material.  Interlocking rhythms lift the music ever higher and lyrics feel like mantras.  The result is a show that journeys through an aural landscape both familiar and unsettling, but always energising.

The levels of craft and precision are astonishing.  For a man who prides himself on writing by instinct, allowing melodies to develop organically by vocalising at the piano, this is a show that is meticulously thought through. The clothes are black, while the stylised consoles on which the flashing electronics rest are white. Everything is in its right place: a small mark in gaffer tape shows the centre of the stage, so that the vocal mic can be easily placed exactly symmetrically to the screens and consoles.  This attention to detail is everywhere.  Five large digital screens form the back of the stage, enhancing the musical atmosphere and creating a stunning backdrop.

It’s hard to express just how complete an experience was created. In the beautiful theatre setting, this felt like high art of the most immersive kind. The interaction between music and visuals was breathtaking. There were three band members on stage, but only two of them were controlling the music. Producer Nigel Godrich anchored the sound world for Yorke to add layers over, while Tarik Barri was visual artist in residence. For the gentle opening of 'Interference', we were greeted with a sliver of pure light, like an opening eye or a rising dawn.  As we descended into the electronic grinding of 'A Brain in a Bottle' (feeling much heavier live than on the record), the screens were soon filled with evocative swirling colour and pattern.  The artwork complemented the songs individually, echoing painterly styles but always shifting and evolving.  By the end of the show it had become evening on the screens, and the second encore ('Spectre', a Radiohead song Yorke is “keen to reclaim”) was delivered to a blanket of stars.

At the same time, decades on the road playing in a hugely successful band (you’ve probably heard of them) have given Yorke an assured confidence on stage, and a desire for the raucous atmosphere of a huge festival gig. This was not an outpouring of torment, but a considered articulation of universal thoughts, that only he could voice so beautifully. His songs, whilst tense and introspective, have moments of huge energy and rapturous rhythmic drive.  He pirouetted around the stage, tweaking effects and loopers so that his voice became one of the instruments. The mesmerising movements of his dancing were echoed by those listening as we swayed and twitched along with him. His vocal performance, so pure and yet with rough edges of emotion, was stunning.  

The audience, faces glowing in the reflected light from the shimmering screens, were swept along in the joy and tension. At times it felt like a religious experience, with spontaneous shouts and declarations of love for the diminutive preacher man weaving his web on the stage.  Always humble yet poetic, Yorke tried to respond to some of these outpourings.  “I couldn’t hear that … are you speaking German? I’m hearing things backwards today.  I find that it helps.”  

The show is a masterpiece and the album is an essential listen - whether you play it forwards or backwards is up to you.

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Photo: Richard Isaac/REX/Shutterstock