So I was asked to write a couple of blurbs for FACT’s albums of the decade thing. I was happy to, and intrigued as to what the order of the alums would be. It was nice to both be involved and also just an audience member for the list itself. It wasn’t a perfect list, but it was one of the better ones out there. I had meant to write a bunch about it, and maybe I still will. But it’ll have to wait til I get back off my hols.
In a move that some considered well weird, Radiohead began the decade by ditching the indie rock albatross for which they had been backslapped by all and sundry, and coming out with something a bit leftfield. Much had been made of the band holing up in a manor house while Thom Yorke divided his time betwixt an ideas blackboard and the Warp Records back-catalogue.
The result was a thrilling journey into the world of a band both big and imaginative enough to do whatever they wanted. ‘Everything In Its Right Place’, essentially Joe Jackson’s ‘Steppin’ Out’ re-imagined as a blissed-out slab of electronica, nestled next to the super-Plone return to childhood that was the title track. Elsewhere, you’d find the agit-pop breakbeat brickbat ‘Idioteque’, Krautrock party piece ‘The National Anthem’ and the Björk-level serenity-in-discomfort of ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack’. Throughout, you’d find post-rock interludes, ambient epilogues and no wasted moments. It got some stick for not being really avant-garde, but the point was to open the ears of Radiohead’s myriad mainstream fans.
It was supposed to be the dawn of a new era: no more singles; the band would release whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted; no more 2-3 year album hype cycle. Compromise was inevitable, as they returned to singles and the multi-year wait. But, for a short while, Britain’s biggest band was also its most intriguing. And that’s not something you can say very often.
Rather than a lame ‘versus’ collaboration, the two coolest names in modern heavy metal actually collaborated to create this thrilling album. Altar could have just been Pink + Black 1, and people would have eaten it up. Being the artists they are, though, from the murk and gloom of this Southern Lord supergroup came the spine-chilling slo-mo ballad ‘The Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep)’; the enormo-fuck, synth-assisted mind annihilation of ‘Akuma no Kuma’; the sinister hypnagogic assault of ‘Fried Eagle Mind’. The suffocating atmosphere and low frequency overload meant Altar could be as palatable to Hyperdub fans as Relapse ones; perhaps more so.
Not just the five full-time members of the two bands, the record enlisted the likes of Jesse Sykes, Earth’s Dylan Carlson and Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil, but it sounds like the work of a single entity. So complete is the vision on Altar that there is a 28-minute ‘prelude’: Her Lips Were Wet With Venom (SatanOscillateMyMetallicSonatas)’ boasts a palindromic arrangement to match its subtitle. While post-metal may largely be a damp squib, this record alone justifies the sub-genre’s existence.