Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke surprises fans with album by file-sharing
British musician Thom Yorke performs on the main stage at the Big Chill festival near Ledbury, England, on August 6, 2010 (AFP)

Radiohead's ever-experimental frontman Thom Yorke on Friday released a surprise new album through computer file-sharing, testing a new way of revenue generation that he hopes can directly benefit musicians.

Called "Tomorrow's Modern Boxes," Yorke's second solo album is a melancholy, ambient composition whose layered but measured textures of electronic rifts reflect his frequent theme of the role of the individual in an increasingly industrialized world.

While the sound will be instantly familiar to Radiohead fans, Yorke chose a new way to sell the album -- over BitTorrent, the system to share large files between computers that has become notorious for the free swapping of copyrighted material.

"Tomorrow's Modern Boxes" breaks new ground by charging for the files, although the $6 price is less than most album sales.

"I am trying something new, don't know how it will go," Yorke wrote on Twitter as he suddenly released the album.

In a longer message, Yorke said that BitTorrent could allow artists -- who frequently complain of meager royalties -- to bypass "the self-elected gate-keepers" and sell their work directly.

"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," he said.

But Yorke admitted he was unsure the public will "get its head around" the idea. In an age when streaming and smartphones are transforming the music industry, BitTorrent relies on computers with "Tomorrow's Modern Boxes" unavailable on iTunes.

Radiohead has frequently experimented on distribution techniques, with the last album "The King of Limbs" self-released for downloading on the band's website before it went on general sale.

In 2007, Radiohead let customers name their own price when downloading "In Rainbows." A study later found that, while many fans paid, more people downloaded it -- for free -- on BitTorrent than from the band's website.

The latest innovative release comes weeks after mega-stars U2 took a different approach by releasing album "Songs of Innocence" for free on iTunes as part of a promotion with Apple.

- Dark sci-fi atmosphere -

"Tomorrow's Modern Boxes" further hones Radiohead's sound developed in the late 1990s on albums such as the seminal "Kid A," when the former guitar-driven alternative rockers turned to keyboards and classical theory with Yorke's voice subservient to the songs' greater atmosphere.

Yorke's keyboards duel throughout "Tomorrow's Modern Boxes" with a tighter rhythm section, as the dark and sometimes wobbly digitized chords impatiently toy with picking up the tempo.

The first track, "A Brain in a Bottle," sets the tone for the album with an accompanying video glaring at a disheveled Yorke from assorted angles before he retreats behind boxing gloves.

"Oh, what's that seeking us? Steel hands have come to talk to us. Take me back," Yorke sings over an electronic backdrop that produces an air of science fiction.

Yorke similarly rues the direction of modernization on "Interference," in which he sings, "In the future, we will change our numbers and lose contact / In the future, leaves will turn brown when we want them."

"Tomorrow's Modern Boxes" gradually shifts into long instrumental sections, with pulsating keyboards that would be at home on the hazy floor of a trance set -- even if the pace is barely danceable.

The album could be followed by fresh Radiohead work.

Yorke recently sent out a series of cryptic tweets hinting at a new album -- including a link to an untitled picture of a white turntable.

While the picture could have foreshadowed "Tomorrow's Modern Boxes," Yorke also indicated that he has spent two days in the studio with longtime Radiohead collaborator Stanley Donwood.