By Greg Kot
Updated September 11, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
TV on the Radio: Roman Barrett

The first song on Return to Cookie Mountain, the third album from TV on the Radio, drops the listener into a besieged bunker in the middle of some unnamed war. ”Held up in a luxury suite behind a red barricaded door,” a voice moans. Guitars emit a disquieting end-of-the-world hum until they fog up the senses, then recede. A sad orchestra bleats out funereal chords, and a piano tolls, over and out. The war this Brooklyn quintet describes is more emotional and metaphorical than literal, and it serves as an ominous opener for the album, a dystopian soundtrack in the tradition of art-of-noise classics by David Bowie (Scary Monsters), Radiohead (OK Computer), and Tricky (Pre-Millennium Tension).

These visual artists-turned-sonic architects have always loved to combine dread and drone. Now they’ve got the songs to go with their mastery of things-falling-apart atmosphere. Sometimes they drift into melodrama, but even ripe lines such as ”Hold your heart courageously as we walk into this dark place” are redeemed by the harmonies of Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone. You won’t hear airier, more evocative singing on a rock record this year, from the Beach Boys-like dissonant harmonies on ”A Method” to the eerie counterpoint vocals of ”Hours.”

Studio chemist Andrew Sitek and the rest of the Radio gang turn the agitated introspection of ”Wash the Day Away” into unlikely grandeur, push ”Wolf Like Me” until it surges into a cold-sweat anthem, and construct a hypnotic reverie out of guitar, piano, and muted percussion on ”Province” (with a vocal assist from fan David Bowie).

The savvier arrangements, brimming with unsettling sound effects, put Cookie Mountain several steps ahead of its fine 2004 predecessor, Desperate Youth, Bloody Thirsty Babes. If the voices of Adebimpe and Malone are the album’s soul, the soundscapes-turned-songs are its unshakable foundation.