In this review I'll address the question : is there such a thing as audiophile grade noise?
I won't really answer it however.
But I will acknowledge that the noisier parts of one of The Flaming Lips most important (and ultimately transitional) albums sound way way better and noisier and more skronky on the newest remasters (done by Bernie Grundman!) of their seminal 1995 release, Clouds Taste Metallic. This is included in the fine, fascinating and sprawling five LP set Heady Nuggs 1994-1997.
Even as I was pre-ordering this deluxe edition set from the band's website, I was a bit skeptical that a whole box set was necessary for this period of the band's career. I was wrong and as it turns out this set is really thoughtfully pulled together both conceptually and in execution.
For those of you not in the know, Clouds Taste Metallic was the final album from first widely popular incarnation of The Flaming Lips that achieved mass success in the early 1990s. That album set the stage for the wave of mind expanding, conceptually related albums the band issued around the turn of the new Millenium: The Soft Bulletin (1999), Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots (2002) and At War With The Mystics (2005). (Zaireeka from 1997 must be acknowledged, but that was mostly an experimental touchstone). That evolution from the acid driven noise pop-punk the band had been brewing took a wholeheartedly conceptual turn beginning with Clouds Taste Metallic and that is what this box set is celebrating.
The limited edition version of the set from the band's website comes on lovely, perfectly pressed multi-color vinyl albums that are super quiet and perfectly centered. But the important thing is how they sound and I'm convinced that it was very much a brand new mastering job done on this, especially the version of Clouds Taste Metallic; it sounds noticeably better than the version included in the first Heady Nuggs box set retrospective (which contained all the Warner Brothers albums up through Yoshimi).
The mixes sound more defined, rounder and less harsh where they need to be less harsh. And, they also sound harsher where intended! Skronky guitars never really sounded quite so skronky! Audiophile noise? Perhaps! But its not just the sense of skronk. Its the sense of dynamics. Noisy guitars are pitched against acoustic guitars and big drum sounds -- someone on a fan forum along the way called them "John Bonham cartoon drums" which is a good way of describing the sounds. These are huge sounding kick drums, massive drum hits and bold, intentionally heavy handed playing through out.
And then you hear a bell.... and a hand clap... and some outer space sounding feedback ("When You Smile") ...
This before the almost thrash-punky epic "Kim's Watermelon Gun" pits a banjo plucks against a driving wall-of-sound din of electric rock yet with vocals and harmonies floating neatly atop this carefully concocted beautiful mess. And that is how Clouds Taste Metallic goes, ending up with a couple of my all time favorite Flaming Lips songs, the ever charming Phil Spector-on-Acid joy of "Christmas At The Zoo" and the hopeful and rollicking album ender "Bad Days."
So what else do you get in this box set? You get a fine sounding never-before-released two LP set live album (Psychiatric Explorations of the Fetus With Needles), a first-time-on-vinyl mini album containing alternate mixes, radio performances and such (Providing Needles For Your Balloons) and an album of even more rarities (The King Bug Laughs). Each of these releases sound remarkably good for all their seemingly raw tossed off presentation.
No, these guys knew exactly what they were doing here and their producer David Fridmann should be applauded for his ability to corral all their wild ideas into an album (now albums) for the ages. It all sounds remarkably grand for all its rough 'n tumble flavor. Even the included MP3 downloads sound decent.
If this set is too much for you, at least pick up Clouds Taste Metallic on CD or vinyl. If you loved The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi, this is where the sound of those records really began to gestate.
Its light and dark colliding in a glorious rainbow explosion.
That is the best description I can give the novice contemplating checking out The Flaming Lips. Perhaps it like young Roger Waters tripping across Golden Gate Park on a sunny day with Syd Barrett, Neil Young and The Monkees while The Who's Quadrophenia and The Archies' "Sugar Sugar" play on a cosmic boombox prism-ed across the Dark Side of the Moon.
Or something like that...
Fun, freaky 'n far out. Check it out.