Exploring the future: A review of Thom Yorke’s “Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes”
Thom Yorke is a music visionary. Even if you aren’t into what Radiohead does, you cannot objectively deny the influence that the group, especially Yorke’s musical direction and songwriting, has had on various genres. Yorke’s approach to music is adventurous and bold, and even though as the years have progressed his music has grown more avant-garde, he has retained his success. Yorke is also a staunch critic of the music industry, especially the mediums that are responsible for music distribution. Included in his criticisms are streaming services such as Spotify and the “middle-man” mentality in major label distribution. As this is the case, Yorke has sought alternative ways to get his music to the fans (for instance Radiohead’s In Rainbows was released in a “pay-what-you-want format,” as well as Radiohead’s The King of Limbs was released Digital Rights Management free).
And with this all in mind, we arrive at Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, Yorke’s second solo record. Released on the controversial site BitTorrent, the album is (according to Thom) “an experiment to see if the mechanics of the system are something that the general public can get its head around … If it works well it could be an effective way of handing some control of internet commerce back to people who are creating the work. Enabling those people who make either music, video or any other kind of digital content to sell it themselves. Bypassing the self elected gate-keepers.”
Some reviewers have argued that the record is mediocre, and really more of a way to challenge the distribution system as opposed to making a phenomenal album.
But hang on…it’s now MY turn to review the record.
The way I would describe Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is that it is for those that are already on Yorke’s musical wavelength. If you don’t like the man’s music, you should probably not start here for a change in your opinion. I would tell you to go listen to some trip-hop, downtempo, ambient, and other electronic/avante-garde styles before you approach this album as a non-Yorke listener. Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is an electronic, minimalist exploration into a world that can be bleak, as well as incredibly beautiful and unpredictable. The songs are sometimes vocal, sometimes not. All songs on the record explore the phenomenon that is the computer, namely how it can create art. Everything is unconventional, mathematical, repetitive with a purpose, and in many ways haunting on this album.
For me personally this record is right in my wheelhouse. I have explored technology’s ability to create music many times as a composer, not to mention written about mathematics’ relation to music (see here https://mixolydianblog.com/2012/08/06/music-and-mathematics-algorithmic-composition-2/). Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes engages the listener in a relatively short timeframe with as few musical materials as possible. Sometimes it is a looping drum track with jarring electronic tones as Thom explores his falsetto tones. At other times the record explores looping patterns with Steve Reich-esque chordal minimalism on the piano/synth.
I feel like Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is an exploration into what Yorke wants to do when some of his ideas with Radiohead or Atoms for Peace are scrapped. The whole album is mysterious, like a dream that has many layers (yes…I just made a veiled Inception reference). I think those reviewers (The Guardian, NME, Consequence of Sound) that place Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes in an “average” category are misunderstanding the purpose of minimalism. The finite elements ARE the magic, and this is very much true with this album. My earliest experiences as a composer were shaped by the meditative repetition of the minimalist music made by Philip Glass, Steve Reich and others. There is something profoundly bold in making a piece of music that chooses to explore the notes within the notes, rather than a flurry of notes and instruments invading your consciousness.
Truly the album is worth to me more than the $6 USD price tag, but Yorke is cool like that. He wants you to come into his world, and has made it possible for people on any kind of budget to experience his music. Will BitTorrent releases become more common? One cannot say for certain, but the idea is a refreshing look on how we as music makers fix our broken industry. Beyond the release method, what really matters here is the music (in my opinion it is the main thing to focus on). I have traveled through Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes many times since its release, and I still remain in total wonder at the album.
I highly urge you to give it a chance.
Standout tracks: “Interference,” “The Mother Lode”