Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Flaming Lips - Embryonic

You’ve got to be doing something right if you’ve been around as long as The Flaming Lips and are still in any way relevant.

Wayne Coyne and company maintain their seemingly eternal vitality by re-imagining themselves before things can get stale. And, having mastered the art of skewed psychedelic pop balladry over the last decade, the time for such a reinvention was apparently at hand.

From the ragged feedback and rigid backbeat of opening salvo, Convinced of the Hex, it’s clear that we’re in for a different experience. This brash rough-hewn production is a complete departure from The Lips’ last three outings. The sonic palette has been stripped back to essential components – serrated guitars; lo-fi synthesized melodies; pulsating bass; distortion-blunted drums and Coyne’s wistful idiosyncratic croon.

Embryonic is a strange hybrid of electronic noise and alien rock sprawled out over two discs worth of experimentation. Long instrumental bridges blur into surreal atmospheric pieces and are punctuated abruptly by chaotic outbursts of noise. All-the-while, Coyne’s heavily processed vocals float over top hauntingly disembodied, like a relic from long ago or a hologram.

The debt to early Floyd, is stamped all over, but is especially clear on the Ummagumma-like See the Leaves with it’s cryptic lyrics; throbbing bass line; scatter shot drums and long end trail of creepy morose synthesizer.

The influence of '70s German bands like Can and Neu! is another key ingredient. Whether it’s the distortion-laden behemoth Worm Mountain, the hypnotic, mostly instrumental Powerless which stretches out to nearly seven minutes, or album closer Watching the Planets, this kraut influence is unmistakable.

Distortion is such a prominent feature this time around, it could be credited on the liner notes. It’s the primordial substance from which this dis-jointed auditory opus is wrought.

Even when they do the ballad thing, like on Evil or If, the results are frayed and messy (in the best way possible). There's a graininess and a kind of smudged ambiance that gives the whole thing an out-of-focus quality. Or conversely, in the case of The Impulse , you get the only “clean” cut on the album, but it's all vocoded which makes it sound radically out of place and just fucked up.

The album's flow is erratic, as is captured perfectly in the transition from the somber Evil to Aquarius Sabotage which noisily lashes in out in all directions with spastic drumming, squalls of feedback and synthesizer chimes before it dissolves back to ambiance. But, these contrasts of rhythmic to ambient; meditative to jarring; are what make this record so satisfying to me - they build tension and then release the pent-up anxiety in cathartic sonic blasts.

As much as I loved The ‘Lips sound of the early aughts, I don’t think they could have done anything better in that vein than Yoshimi, so I’m really grateful that they’ve taken things in this different direction. In the process they've come up with what might be my favorite record this year.

Oh, and I got to put in a plug for Silver Trembling Hands, just because I think it’s one of the best things they’ve ever written… I leave it to you to find out why though.

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