The Flaming Lips have a new album out called The Terror. I received my limited edition mail-order-only pressing on spiffy silver-y vinyl (plus free download) and am enjoying the journey these guys are on. This isn't the Flaming Lips of your college days kiddies. No, this is more like an hour long journey through the history of ambient music (Eno and Fripp's experiments come to mind at times), early 70s British progressive rock (Atom Heart-era Pink Floyd, Robert Wyatt's Soft Machine, Matching Mole, Gandalf, etc.) and German "krautrock" (if you will) from Neu! to Cluster to Can. Plus a healthy dose of modern day DJ driven techno electronica and such.
Before we get to the album, some background is essential to put this in perspective:
When Flaming Lips' reconvened to the studio after recording and touring the third in a trilogy of beautifully recorded, progressive-leaning pop albums, they found themselves (arguably) painted into a corner and at risk of repeating themselves into oblivion. The Soft Bulletin (1999), Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots (2003) and At War With the Mystics (2005) were virtually a trilogy (sonically, if not lyrically). So what's a fledgling band with progressive tendancies, a massive following and a contract with one of the biggest record labels in the world to do? Confound expectations at every twist and turn, keep the fans on their toes and challenge themselves with new ideas.
Their reinvention has taken many phases which the band has thankfully decided to share with the fans along the way. First came a complete re-thinking of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon which worked a lot better than it had any right to do and made total sense; I mean, why deconstruct your own music when you can deconstruct one of your big influences?
Then, there was a series of wonderful 12-inch colored vinyl single releases (no labels on the discs, on side spinning at 33 1/3, the other at 45 RPM) featuring collaborations with as wide an array of artists as could be imagined -- "Heady Fwends" such as Coldplay's Chris Martin to Aussie psych prog newbies Tame Impala to the legendary Yoko Ono and The Plastic Ono Band.
Betwixt and between, there were a bunch of even more off the wall internet releases such as a 24-hour long song -- the 6 hour long song wasn't enough for these guys -- the recording stored on a USB zip drive embedded in a human skull (or a "gummy" skull if the real thing was too gnarly for you). Oh yeah, there was the maybe-THIS-will-creep-you-out-into-submission limited edition vinyl record filled with actual BLOOD from some band members and other celebrities (really, you can't make this stuff up folks).
The list goes on; these guys have been intensely busy.
Even I have had trouble keeping up with the pace of releases and had to go as far as LA to find some of the recordings because they sold out here in San Francisco pronto.
They also released a great studio album called Embryonic which was darker, noisy, glitchy and a bearing a very different production aesthetic than the prior three studio releases (The Soft Bulletin was hailed by many as the Pet Sounds of the '90s!).
The Terror clearly would not have been made if they had not done Embryonic as well as all these other off the wall experiments along the way.
Anyhow, at the recent South By Southwest conference, Flaming Lips debuted their new album The Terror in live performance. A brave move, but one that I think may have done the actual studio recording a disservice. The live show was cool and I'm with them on this journey -- but I think the studio album is so much better and cooler to listen to I wonder if they should have just played the record for the crowds.
I read reports online that some people walked out of the show -- their loss.
The Terror is a really interesting album and a grower with each listen. It reminds me of no less than a stretched out, darker twist on Brian Eno's Another Green World, with moments of stirring, haunting beauty followed by episodes of, well, terror! There are spoken word bits overlaid upon synthesizer and keyboard drones, while choir-like multi layered vocals are flown in, over, under and about the music. Some times singer Wayne Coyne is singing in a soft falsetto that is drenched in a huge reverb - I imagine this is what it might be like hearing Neil Young chanting a backwards Tibetan prayer on a mountain in some alternate universe.
Lost Horizon, indeed...
The sound on this album is markedly more high fidelity than some of the recent releases like Embryonic but yet bear a muted resonance of early 70s influences cited at the start of this article. Don't come here looking for guitar pyrotechnics. This is is music as sound sculpture and any soloing would take away from the overall vibe -- that said, perhaps one of these days they will have David Gilmour sit in with the band... its just waiting to happen one of these days (and would be soooooo sweet!).
I'm liking The Terror. It is a brave release and manages to move the band further into new directions while fitting in with the overall cannon of the group's legacy. I disagree with some statments I've read claiming that the new Lips sound is like the early Lips sound -- this is far more cohesive stuff.
The fourth side of the LP is a very cool -- and genuinely terrifying at times -- remix by Dan Deacon of the ENTIRE album condensed into one long side-length track (it comes as a bonus on the Deluxe iTunes version). As part of the deal, you also get a free download of The Flaming Lips' cover of The Beatles' "All You Need Is Love," plus an instant download of the band's groovy pop song "Sun Blows Up Today" which was used in a car commercial during the SuperBowl this year. (Put them at the end of your Terror playlist for a bit of sunshine at the end of the tunnel).
The limited edition silver vinyl - sold through the band's website - is really a very cool thing, with a texture about the vinyl that makes it look almost folded, or like drippy silver paint (check out the photo I've included here of it on my turntable to get an idea of what I'm talking about). While not 180-gram, the pressing is solid, well centered and quiet. It wasn't cheap and still isn't quite as cool as the glow in the dark disc the band put out with Yoko Ono, but it is still a a fine achievement, one that bears repeated listens. The free accompanying MP3 download sounds pretty good too all things considered, but is not as full bodied as the LP; you get the full album in two versions - as 9 individual tracks which you can mix 'n match in your iPod shuffle or playists and also and as one long track for a continuous listen the way the band intended. Of course if you listen to The Terror on headphones while commuting to work on the subway, it may just make you quit your job to go climb a mountain.
The Terror is real good. Just don't expect it to sound quite like The Flaming Lips used to sound when you were in college, kids.
This is a whole new trip.
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Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician / composer who's songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he's written. www.smotroff.com