“This is not a game,” Epic Games are at pains to point out at the start of a statement accompanying their new KID A MNESIA exhibition with Radiohead. Created as part of a series of 20th anniversary celebrations for the band’s two game-changing albums from the early 2000s, ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac’, they say that the exhibition will resonate with fans of the albums, and anyone “who understands this isn’t intended to be a traditional video game experience.”
So far, so off-the-wall. It’s suitable, really, as ‘Kid A’, Radiohead’s fourth album that dropped at the turn of the millennium, was as far from traditional as they come, as they ditched the guitars for bleeping electronics and swirling soundscapes. It was, and still is, viewed as a turning point not only for the band – who were, until that point, a largely formulaic if brilliant rock band – but for the direction of popular music at the start of the 2000s.
KID A MNESIA was originally conceived as a physical installation, before obstacles including the pandemic got in its way, and it moved online. When travelling through the surreal landscapes of the virtual exhibition, it proves a blessing that it ended up this way. The genius of ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac’ was in their warping of time and space, and their ability to remove you from the real world. Suitably, the best bits of the exhibition are also when images distort themselves beyond recognition in a way only achievable through a screen.
Created by Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke alongside Stanley Donwood, the mastermind behind the band’s one-of-a-kind artwork, ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac’ producer Nigel Godrich and a team of developers, the exhibition is deeply embedded in the Radiohead world, and the beautiful interconnection between the sound and visuals presented here proves such. The statement announcing the game promised to “enhance and emphasise the inseparable nature of these sounds and visions,” and achieves it with dazzling consequences.
To start the exhibition, I’m set down in a colourless sketched forest, with Radiohead’s bear mascot peeking out from behind the trees. Eventually, a red light beckons me up into a series of never-ending abandoned buildings as flickers of ambient noise peppers the background.
Every sound heard in the game also appears on ‘Kid A’ or ‘Amnesiac’, but its parts are scattered like shards and stretched apart into new shapes as the music shows itself in dismembered forms. While travelling through the exhibition feels like crawling inside one of Donwood’s stunning pieces of art, through your headphones you get to interrogate the nuts and bolts of the music itself, deconstructing albums you’ve lived with for 20 years, but are suddenly hearing like never before.
When instantly recognisable full portions of songs are used, they’re done so in all the right places: the thudding rush of ‘Kid A’ opener ‘Everything In Its Right Place’ accompanies my first foray down a neon-lit pathway with Radiohead artwork dashing up and down the walls at the speed of light. Then, after entering a room filled with TVs flashing apocalyptic imagery, an arrow on the floor promises ‘DRUM N BASS’ inside a golden column in the middle of the room. After melting inside its walls, the throbbing bassline of ‘The National Anthem’ bursts in right on cue.
The lyrics on ‘Kid A’ reflect mistrust of power and feeling at odds with the world, and these themes are splattered all over the exhibition. As I travel down the lonely and tattered hallways of the never-ending building, phrases from lyrics and promotional posters jump out at me. ‘NEVER EVER, EVER NEVER PICK IT UP’, one reads, next to a photo of a telephone. A little later, three Radiohead bears hold hands on the wall of a grey, industrial building, each wearing t-shirts reading: ‘SEX’, ‘WORK’, ‘DEATH’. You knew this wasn’t going to be a cheery experience, right?
While lots of video game soundtracks – yes, Thom, we know this is an exhibition and not a game – feature original music released at the same time as the game, one of the most fascinating elements of KID A MNESIAC for me, someone intimately familiar with the music of both albums, was scouring the landscapes to try and find where I think my favourite songs might be fitting in and then go giddily searching for them. Where would the blissful, floaty textures of ‘Pyramid Song’ live in this building, I thought to myself? (In a room of curved walls that look something like being back in the womb, it turns out). The crazed beats of ‘Idioteque’? (In a weightless box with walls made of Matrix-like green letters). While many games succeed in having you search for the unknown, KID A MNESIAC’s genius comes from also allowing you to look for something familiar, and get the serotonin rush when you find it. The result? Getting to wig out to ‘Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box’ while staring at a lit up suspended cube as a number of creepy skeletal aliens, who follow me round a large period of the exhibition, do their version of dancing.
For Radiohead fans, some of the exhibition’s most striking moments will come when travelling inside and floating around one of the snow-covered peaks from the ‘Kid A’ album cover, or when the lyrics to ‘Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors’ reveal themselves in neon letters as you speed down a dingy hallway. It also works brilliantly well for newcomers, though. You can be a diehard fan looking for nuggets of information about a band you thought you knew inside out, or a novice dropped in at the deep end of the most experimental and vital period in a legendary band’s career to begin your educational journey.
In its purest form, KID A MNESIA is simply a deeply beautiful solo trip through what appears to be an apocalyptic wasteland, before little pockets of beauty show themselves in unexpected places, poking out of the darkness. Like listening to all the best Radiohead songs, basically.