Last month, XL Recordings hosted a special advance listening session for Thom Yorke‘s Suspiria soundtrack in Los Angeles. These sort of listening parties are fairly common for anticipated records, where a bunch of industry professionals turn out for free drinks and light networking, sometimes giving the record their undivided attention and others just allowing it to be background ambience. Once in a while, the artist even shows up to take questions or just witness these early reactions.
But the Suspiria event took things to the next level. For one, it was held at the Sowden House in Los Feliz, an ornate residence that looks like a Mayan inspired recreation of a shark attack. It’s rumored to be the site of the Black Dahlia murder and is a frequent shooting location for movies and music videos. All attendees were required to lock up their phones and after hitting the bar for complimentary wine and CBD strips, the task was to quietly sit in the home’s courtyard and take in the work that Yorke has created.
As an event, it wasn’t the ideal method for listening to an ambient, at times horrific, and quite long album. No phones meant no clocks, so the record’s runtime could not be tracked, and with 25 songs, even counting off starts and stops proved futile. In the end, it raised questions into the nature of horror, and whether there was anything as anxiet- causing as feeling lost in time, not knowing how many minutes had passed and when (or if) something was going to end.
The occasional blood-curdling scream (like on “Synthesizer Speaks”) that comes from the album might as well have been the internal monologue of the dozens of people in attendance. For every moment that sounded like a possessed power drill floating through space (“Open Again”) or demonic glitchy whirring (“A Light Green”), the audience’s discomfort could be seen in shared glances or heard in the occasional nervous laughter. Suspiria the album is simply not a record meant to be consumed as a group activity, at least not without the film providing the accompanying imagery to put the album’s more experimental moments into context.
But even if sitting down and listening straight through Suspiria in a group without distractions isn’t the ideal way to experience it, that doesn’t mean that the Radiohead leader’s first foray into film scoring isn’t an often staggeringly beautiful experience. Unlike his bandmate Johnny Greenwood, whose work scoring Paul Thomas Anderson films has catapulted him to the top of rockstars-turned-composers shortlist, Yorke infuses this album with his own voice, at times working solely within mood and other times crafting songs that would fit right at home on a more traditional rock album. As I noted last year, Yorke’s voice provides a presence that goes beyond his clear brilliance as a songwriter or his ear for an arrangement. When he sings, there is no doubt who you are hearing or what he is trying to convey. On Suspiria, he wields this power for all its worth, hemming the songs’ stitches with a needle and thread and allowing the rare moments when he inserts himself clearly into the sonic tapestry to stand as tall as capital letters in a world of lowercase.
Still, the operative project of Suspiria for Yorke seems to be pushing himself into brave new territory, even if he’s best when he’s at his most familiar. On the record’s title-ish track, “Suspirium,” Yorke sticks closest to his Radiohead roots than elsewhere, with a fluttering, delicate piano line backing his tender vocal melody. The song pushes his voice to its breaking point, with a slight rasp peeking its head around the curtain at times, Yorke bravely flaunting 50 years of wear when they decide to make themselves known. “Has Ended,” on the other hand, sounds less like the music Radiohead has already crafted and more like the music we all hope for from one of the most revered bands of all time. The song is sleepy and mysterious, using unpredictable and adventurous drum work from Yorke’s son Noah and multiple vocal tracks to cast its sultry shadow. Both are masterful turns that instantly rank among his finest compositions of all time, both on his own and within his main band.
In an interview with BBC6, Yorke described the process of making the album as “absolutely terrifying,” which feels like an ideal place for the creative genesis of a horror movie soundtrack. Interestingly, the lyrics are said to draw more from the political climate of both America and the UK than from the actual film that’s being scored, but the flames of anxiety and fear that fan both makes for an ideal marriage. And it’s the predominantly instrumental tracks that best achieve this sensation, be it the ’80s futurism of the cacophonous “Volk” or the endless drone of the creeping “A Choir Of One.”