Thom Yorke has always made chilling music. The haunting tenor of his voice skulks over Radiohead's orchestration like a ghostly apparition; his presence on each track feels translucent and impossible to catch. Having spent 25 years recording songs to curdle the blood and freeze the soul, it doesn't take a musicologist to know that recording a horror movie soundtrack is well within Yorke's skillset. Yet Suspiria, his first feature film soundtrack, shows us some angles of the phantom musician not previously seen. As has been the case with his bandmate, Jonny Greenwood, working on a flick unlocks new areas of Yorke's already towering artistry.
So yes, Suspiria is a score. It plays like a score. Yorke is working within the parameters of director Luca Guadagnino's supernatural horror – a remake of the 1977 Dario Argento film of the same name – on music that's primarily intended to be consumed with visuals. The sprawling 80-minute set features lots of atmospheric orchestral numbers and brooding instrumentals tailor-made for the picture show. Despite stretching to beyond 14 minutes, A Choir of One is a low-key piece of ambient music that's likely to complement any on-screen action, not overshadow it. The Hooks is even underpinned by grossly violent sounds presumably lifted from the film itself (Suspiria the movie doesn't come out until next month).
Radiohead have explored all kinds of strange proclivities but they’ve remained primarily a song-based band, typically, though not exclusively, working within the limits of traditional structure. Ditto for Thom Yorke’s solo output. Anybody hoping for an album in the vein of the glitch laptop music of The Eraser or Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes will be disappointed. There are, though, some fully functioning songs, many of which are album highlights. Suspirium is one of his best-ever solo tracks, the flickering piano keys, and nothing else, underpinning Yorke’s eternally piercing falsetto. Similarly, Unmade finds the singer musing on his piano stool before the whole thing ends in a swarm of sci-fi blips, as though he’s being beamed aboard a starship.
Has Ended is distinguished by droning synths that sound like they're influenced by South Asian instrumentation, while the twacked drums, performed by Yorke's 17-year-old son, Noah, and thick bass recall the sound of trip-hop legends Portishead. The song sees Yorke decry the recent wave of right-wing leaders ("The fascists felt ashamed/ At their dancing puppet king"), allowing him to stetch beyond the remit of the jobbing film score composer.
Elsewhere, Yorke creates a broad sonic tapestry by engaging in a variety of disciplines. Teaming with the London Contemporary Orchestra and Choir, there are plenty of classical and opera-influenced sounds throughout his Suspiria. Sabbath Incantation features nothing but choir harmonies that echo as though recorded from the back row of a cathedral. Yorke’s love of electronica is evident, too. For example, the pulsing synths of The Jumps, though relaxed, feel inspired by the sounds of techno.
Although cohesive and often impressive, Suspiria is a long and testing experience, meaning many listeners are likely to carve the album up, siphoning off the best cuts for playlists. The most vital truth about the piece, though, isn’t that Thom Yorke makes great music – that’s almost a given. It’s that even after such a legendary career, there are still sides to him we’ve not yet got to know.