Etymology: < Latin fer-a wild beast + -al suffix
1. Of an animal: Wild, untamed. Of a plant, also (rarely), of ground: Uncultivated.
Now often applied to animals or plants that have lapsed into a wild from a domesticated condition.
2. Of, pertaining to, or resembling a wild beast; brutal, savage.
3. Used as n.: A wild-beast. Obs. rare.
Radiohead don’t like drummers. ‘Feral,’ checking in at three minutes and twelve seconds, is by some distance the shortest track on Radiohead’s King of Limbs. It returns us to the antagonism between the natural world and the electronic era, but this time with the breathless ferocity appropriate to the savage world of drumming.
As we all known from the Muppets, the drums are the instruments of savage beasts. ‘Feral’ is thus an elaborate solo for drummer Phil Selway, with occasional sonic interventions from other band members. It is another of those Radiohead tracks whose tempo is remarkably fast, but which feels in no way upbeat. The drums kick out a relentlessly energetic bass and snare beat with crisp hi-hat ticking. Like a lot of Radiohead drum beats these days it sounds tight, as if recorded in an accousticless room with the microphones very close to the areas where sticks hit skin. This is accompanied by a tremolo minor chord on the tonic that then echoes three times on the dominant, getting softer each time it repeats, saturated with a truncated reverb. The effect is a tense driving beat that feels urgent, but lost. There is no bass or guitar. Just the drums and the echoing chords, which after a fourth iteration cease, leaving Phil Selway to frantically drum alone. His arms, you think, must get tired soon at this rate.
Thom Yorke then joins in with some kind of 2 vowel pronouncement – oo aa – which reverberates languidly around the speakers, as the echoing chords return. Then the huge cathedral sound of a 7-note sequence. It’s Yorke’s voice sampled, processed and replayed as a chord. One of the structuring effects of the track is the contrast between the tight driving drums and the cathedral expansiveness of the 7-note figure. It’s the acoustic equivalent of the confrontation between the organic world of the 1000-year-old tree and the digital age. The echoing voice sounds preternatural, stretching back into the mythic world of the ancient forest, while the drums are taut and professional, produced in the sanitized indoor environment of the recording studio.
The metronymic precision of the drumming provides the track’s backbone, the ancient mythic reverberations are effects laid over. The recording studio is primary, the ancient merely a supplemental effect. In this, though, there is, an odd reversal. Drums, of course, originated as stretched animal skins beaten with wooden sticks; one of the most primitive instruments, yet here they represent the electronic world of the 21st century. The 7-note figure, meanwhile, is a heavily processed sequence created in the studio, but here it represents the ancient forest world. The digital age is primeval and the ancient is technologically produced. Where, then, do we locate the ferocity referred to in the track’s title? With the ancient world, or the modernity which represents it?
Yorke sings some more of his unidentifiable monosyllables, sounds that aspire to words but fall short. A distorted bass, and echoing electronic chords join with Yorke’s primordial forest noises. Selway drums relentlessly on. He takes a couple of short breaks, perhaps swigging a little water, as the echoes of Yorke’s unintelligible vocals take center stage. But his workout quickly resumes.
The track has a complicated image of the feral. The song is not a celebration of the primitive, nor does it imply that the electronic age is in any way superior to the ancient forest world. Both the ancient and the modern are implicated in a musical landscape whose notion of history is of necessity produced electronically. One thing that does become clear though is Radiohead’s pejorative attitude towards the drums. Whether they are associated with the primeval forest or with the clinical age of digital reproduction, they are instruments of ferocity, not of elegance, sophistication, or civility. And even in a track that features drums as heavily as this one, they are recorded with the clinical precision of a machine. While Yorke’s inarticulate vocals express a human terror when faced with an ancient world ferociously subordinated to the modern, the drums mechanically, clinically play on. It must be hard to be Phil Selway.