The Flaming Lips 2011: September, Strobo Trip Light and Audio Phase Illusions Toy
Published on December 25th, 2011 | Jonny Abrams
It’s been a while since we picked up our round-up of The Flaming Lips’ 2011 activity, and for a damn good reason. Full of bravado and love for this band, Rocksucker vowed to properly review the six-hour behemoth that is “I Found A Star On The Ground”, and we can only apologise that this has only materialised so belatedly. Regardless of our determination to take on such an epic journalistic labour of love, this is the kind of undertaking that procrastination was invented for.
Two weeks ago, one ‘kwippleton’ posted a comment at the end of our most recent review – namely July’s EP with Lightning Bolt – asking if we were ever going to finish this series. kwippleton chose not to spell it out in so many words but the insinuation was loud and clear. We like to think we’d have gotten round to this regardless, so consider kwippleton’s gentle prompting to be a ‘bump’ of sorts.
Anyway, brilliantly, “I Found A Star On The Ground” is merely the second track of a three-track EP that comes packaged with a “stroboscopic animation toy”, as flaunted by Wayne Coyne here…
So here, for all our fellow Lips freaks, is a review that we hope does justice to this monumental feat of musical recording…(and YES, we do intend to review the twenty-four-hour song, somehow)…
Click here to read our review of March’s The Flaming Lips with Neon Indian EP, here to read our review of April’s Gummy Song Skull EP, here to read our review of May’s The Flaming Lips with Prefuse 73 EP, here to read our review of June’s Gummy Song Fetus and here to read our review of July’s The Flaming Lips with Lightning Bolt EP.
The Flaming Lips 2011, September: Strobo Trip Light and Audio Phase Illusions Toy
1. “Butterfly, How Long It Takes To Die”
Weighing in at a trifling six minutes, this opening track shuffles nocturnally in like a more fully realised version of “Drug Chart” or “In Our Bodies, Out Of Our Heads” from April’s Gummy Song Skull EP, its shimmering synth reverberations, creepy electric piano tinkles and ‘swarming birds’ sample all simmering rather unsettlingly together in the witch’s brew. There’s even a ghostly, wailing musical saw thrown in towards the end for good measure.
Not for the first time, Coyne casts an insect in the lead role of a stark rumination on death – “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots” this ain’t, casual Lips observers – and, while its excessive eeriness might have ruled it out of a starting place on even the dark masterpiece that is 2009’s Embryonic album, there is just enough care and attention paid to filling out the mix that it sounds abundantly more album-worthy than some of the half-baked efforts that the band’s frantic 2011 activity has understandably given rise to.
It feels like the Lips have been honing their ‘morbid slow march’ craft across this year’s releases, and with “Butterfly, How Long It Takes To Die” they’ve hit upon something that truly deserves to attach itself to the macabre underbelly of stellar Embryonic stomper “See The Leaves”. Impressive, if not something we’ll be rushing to lay on as a gateway to the Lips-istically uninitiated.
2. “I Found A Star On The Ground”
On December 14th, myself and my flatmate Josh flew out to Dubai to visit our old friend Rob, who had also been living with us until earlier this year, when his determination to escape the stress, aggro and drizzle of London life eventually saw him up sticks for a life of Emirati sunshine. Now, Rob has in the past been most vocal about his distaste for The Flaming Lips, chiefly on account of what he perceives (not wholly incorrectly) as their “whacky antics”, a penchant which the band have of course cranked up a notch or two over the course of this past year.
Naturally, I have delighted in keeping him abreast of each new development, be it marijuana-flavoured gummy skulls, USB drives embedded in bubblegum-flavoured foetuses…or, in this case, a six-hour song. It seemed suitable, then, to tackle this whacking great curio on the outwards plane journey, but this proved to be a tad ambitious and I was ultimately to deal with it in stages. I’m quite glad of this too, as the multiple settings rendered the whole shebang even more epic than it would otherwise have been.
I had actually listened to “I Found A Star On The Ground” in its entirety once before but, as this took place over the course of a working day, my attention to it had not been devoted. In order to review it, it would have to go through earphones and manifest itself as scribbles in a small notebook, with the aid of one of those multi-ink pens that can write in blue, black, red or green. (I love these pens.)
As Coyne notes in this interview with Rolling Stone, the track comes crashing in as if midway through, as if we’ve just tuned into another dimension where it was already playing out, perhaps always had been. A sort of military samba drum rhythm then establishes itself (for the long haul, it would turn out), acting as a kinetic wagon for the mad, convulsive Velvet Underground & Nico guitar soloing inhabiting the mix like a bee in its hive. Eventually this gives way to reveal a one-note, syncopated bassline and a gentle, falsetto introduction to the titular, lullaby-like vocal refrain. An even more falsetto, alien-treated vocal bounces on top of it.
After twenty-or-so minutes of various jarring noises staging a dance-off to this irresistibly shuffling rhythm, a vaguely annoying buzzing sound begins to travel from left to right in the mix but still manages to be oddly soothing in my state of half-sleep on this Dubai-bound passenger flight. I daresay though that it wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, seeing as it verges on tinnitus.
The whole mix calms down a tad and grooves on a fuzzy bass synth motif that makes it feel like a vast sonic jungle bathed in purple light, a globe from another realm. Unsettling, sustained synth notes begin to dominate the mix as voices recognisable as Coyne and Drozd chatter away in the background, distant, leaving you feeling like a heavily sedated subject under observation. Funnily enough though, I now feel much more awake.
Aforementioned titular vocal refrain, which dances so sweetly over the chaos, re-emerges different, eerier, and gradually reverts to its original sweetness, reverbed into the ether as the rest of the track rumbles on fuzzily beneath it. The vocal is then trimmed so that only the “ound” sound of “ground” appears regularly at irregular intervals (this song is full of such contradictions). It reminds me of a child’s voice from a creepy Aphex Twin track.
All the while, the pattern of the drumming changes subtly, reminding that in Steven Drozd and Kliph Scurlock The Flaming Lips boast two of the finest drummers going. At 49 minutes, an unfamiliar, faintly orchestral sound chimes in intermittently like some ghostly sample, almost like waves of car traffic noises. It occurs to me that accidentally hitting ‘skip’ could prove to be a major pain in the arse, so I put my iPod on lock. I’m travelling with Royal Brunei; men in smart red jackets and pretty ladies in white head dresses start serving lunch around 54 minutes into the song. I opt for the fish. It’s okay.
The subtle bursts of traffic-sounding orchestra become more involved then fall out again, and an eerie version of the vocal melody returns briefly in its place. Shrill, piercing synth strings enter high up in the mix, ascending one semi-tone at a time as those traffic sounds parp away underneath. I notice that the lady sitting in front of me is watching the Smurfs movie; I can’t hear any of it, of course, but it looks dreadful. Isn’t that the guy from How I Met Your Mother in it? You know, the only funny character. Convincing looking Gargamel, though.
Soon after the hour mark, a monotone vocoder repeats the title rhythmically. There is a whirring, UFO sort of sound and what seems to be the distant chirruping of crickets. This song is a slow evolution, as you would expect at six hours long, and by now it has become something majestically nocturnal. A meaner, leaner bass riff enters the fray along with brief blasts of Embryonic-esque synth siren (think “Evil”). Loosely played guitar noodling gradually becomes dominant in the mix, sounding somehow increasingly melancholy as it does, then a sort of electronic chainsaw begins to moan away, buzzing rhythmically. It starts to wail, shriek, scream.
A sad-faced Papa Smurf embraces one of his comrades. I reach for the cheese and crackers.
At 1hr 20, a power struggle between the increasingly logical-seeming guitar noodling and various harsh electronic squalls is taking place in my ears. The How I Met Your Mother guy kisses a girl as the Smurf film ends with a cloying postscript montage of the happy couple: marriage, babies, etc. The electronic squalls win the battle, devouring the sad, meek guitar noodling like Pacman devours a…but wait, the noodling returns! It gathers strength, then falls away again. A bit like a star, really.
I open what I take to be a moist towelette and inadvertently pour sugar all over my hands, which were already sticky from food. Seeing as I was for the most part using the plastic cutlery provided, I wonder why this should be. The guitar returns, clearly refusing to go without a fight. The synth squalls moan harshly, angered by this deceptively doggish guitar, and I notice that the lady in front of me has now moved on to watching the recent Mr Bean movie. We’re only a foot or two apart from each other but, by gum, what wildly different sensory experiences we are currently enjoying.
The shuffling drums are now so low in the mix as to be virtually inaudible. It’s all about the aforementioned power struggle now, although it starts to feel as if a whole new section is being prepared for when seagull-sounding synth bubbles enter like a soft machine gun (the softest bullets ever shot?). Guitar and chainsaw drop out, no doubt still grappling, leaving only that chiming air raid siren-esque synth as the only element remaining in the mix other than an oozing, filtered synth stroke. The strange little Super Mario jungle world has melted away.
At 1hr 36, Sean Lennon turns up to read a list of names of people who donated $100 to the OKC Humane Society and the ACM@UCO, each one followed by a synth siren sound. I ask for a black coffee. Eventually, “I Can Be A Frog”-esque nocturnal keyboard twinkles signal the arrival of the next section. “Dr Beard,” says Lennon with relish, a gentle dry humour to his delivery throughout. Another name is introduced as the Lips’ “youngest fan, thirteen days old”.
Lennon then falls silent but the siren chimes remain. The vocal refrain returns, now at normal pitch and recognisable as Drozd. It all sounds a bit like one of Embryonic’s more ambient moments. The Mr Bean film looks dire; mind you, I’m sure that fans of it might have dismissive comments of their own about a six-hour psychedelic rock song. A programmed string accompaniment arrives, building in intensity but remaining smooth and lulling. It’s nice to see the sun outside. I wonder where in the world we are now.
The strings make a sharp, jolting key change, heralding what could be a gorgeous recurring motif if it’s allowed to extrapolate. Still the synth siren chimes, stabs even, like icy ripples. Some low, plucked strings appear low in the mix. It’s starting to become rather emotionally stirring, lending a strange gravitas to whatever is going on in the Mr Bean film on the small screen visible through the gap of the seats in front. Ultimately, there is no repetition of the sharp key shift. Good grief, was Mr Bean goose-stepping just then??
I can’t imagine that anyone else on this plane is having as starkly beautiful and suitably airborne a listening experience as I am having right now. It reminds me of “Thirty-Five Thousand Feet Of Depsair” from Zaireeka, which, concerning itself as it does with a pilot hanging himself mid-flight, is a reference point best forgotten about.
We are now two hours in. My tray is taken and I sit back, having only just realised that the siren stabs have vanished, leaving just the strings. That was subtly done. Or I just wasn’t paying attention. The lights dim; it seems that folk are being encouraged to settle into a post-lunch snooze. I wonder if anyone’s been watching me scribbling incessantly into a notepad and wondering what on earth I must be writing about.
Can’t wait to tell Rob how I spent the flight over. The Flaming Lips may be into their “gimmicks”, but so wonderful is their musical output that they don’t even come close to relying on it. Besides, a six-hour song – at least, one such as this which isn’t merely the same one or two sounds on loop for the duration – is not a gimmick so much as it is a feat. Goodness knows what the twenty-four-hour song is like. As I lie back with my laptop on Christmas day typing up my notes, I have it downloading and I fully intend to review it somehow. My friend suggested undertaking a sponsored listen/review for charity. That’s not a bad shout.
Anyway, the Lips have so many great albums under their belt that they’re fully entitled to a year’s worth of crazy, occasionally inspired, undertakings. A cursory glance back over our reviews would reveal our opinion that their 2011 material has been rather patchy, but on the evidence thus far we can place “I Found A Star On The Ground” firmly in the ‘inspired’ category.
At 2hr 09, the shuffly drum beat returns and the strings fall out. Drozd’s vocal comes back in, prompting the arrival of entirely new and abrasive noises, which drop like cartoon bombs all over a wailing 1960’s fuzz guitar (when Coyne said it was like The Velvet Underground meets Super Mario, he wasn’t kidding). From such stark, string-based loveliness, this is now a really rather freaky listen. There seems to be a consistent distorted bass motif chugging along on the opposite side of the mix to the electric guitar nuttiness – think “Powerless” from Embryonic – and it’s all starting to sound ominously military. Perhaps the military have got wind of this star found on the ground and are attempting to seize it in order to harness its no doubt magic properties for whatever reason.
The cartoon bombs fall all around as the guitar continues to spaz out unsettlingly, and I call time out as some glowing synth weirdness loudly introduces itself. Let’s get a bit of kip, eh?
I pick this up around 1pm the next day, lying on a beach in Dubai. ‘Scuzzy’ is the word for how the track has become, but the twinkly keys hint at some dark-yet-lovely magic to come. The way these disparate elements rumble on together makes a strange kind of sense, like some confusing tapestry, sounding like a sort of raggedy cousin of Miles Davis’ 1969 album In a Silent Way. A vocal weaves in and out, reminding us that this is all being watched over with loving grace, rather than the product of someone hitting ‘loop’ or some such. Still feels quite militaristic though.
“Plink plink” go the lovely, dripping, glowing keyboard raindrops over the top; it’s time to lie back in the sun and let this soak in. A lead guitar wibbles in madly as the keyboard begins to form chords out of upward keyboard strokes, and the cartoon bomb drops reappear while the guitar spazzes out in flange. Drozd’s Mickey Mouse voice joins in, imitating the guitar, sounding like a cartoon character being electrocuted. There is a strange wailing on the other side of the mix as well; it becomes shrieking and gains intensity until this is no longer something to lie back and allow to wash over you.
At 2hr 30, keyboard twinkles replace the electrocuted cartoon characters, and some rhythmic ‘Patter Cake’-like handclapping rears its head. Twinkly chords begin to chime, taking shape and structure as some more strange shouting is thrown in and quickly withdrawn. I’m now on the thirtieth page of notes in my admittedly mini notebook. The twinkly chords then chime in monotone like a grandfather clock, dominating the mix even though that samba/military beat continues to rumble on underneath and the guitar continues to spaz out on one side (I’m not sure which of my earphones is right and which is left, hence the constant references to “one side”).
The grandfather clock keys begin to chime two alternating chords which pair together creepily, creating a sort of Twilight Zone feel. Drozd is weaving the kind of dark spell that he’s proven himself to be so peerless at over the last couple of years. The drums are eventually removed as the twinkles form echo-y arpeggios, while the scuzzy bass riff and handclaps are allowed to carry on about their business.
Off goes the bass and in come mighty hammer blows of distorted noise, which eventually become the sole inhabitants of the mix. House-y electric piano chords fade in; I didn’t see that coming (mind you…). For a while, it is just these two elements at play, aside from the depressingly standard Euro-pop/house beat in the background courtesy of whichever belligerent soul saw fit to bring a stereo to the beach. At 2hr 48, a radio effect-treated Lennon returns with some more names, each of which are followed by a hammer blow. For some reason, the occasional name merits two blows; I grasp for a pattern, suspecting it to be every third or fourth name, but this isn’t the case. Maybe they paid $200…?
Back comes the sweet vocal refrain to dance atop a set of rhythmic chimes; an ‘alien harmony’ sort of effect is placed on this vocal, and then everything disappears again as the house-y piano and hammer blows return. Some synth siren stabs are introduced without my noticing. The piano departs, leaving the hammer and siren to trade blows alternately. As the last remaining element, the hammer is our winner. Can’t see hammer-siren-piano ever rivalling rock-paper-scissors in the playability stakes but it’s nothing if not novel.
It’s now day three of the holiday and I’m back on the beach, recovering from a really rather full-on day and night which involved a steak’n’bubbly brunch, watching East 17 live and various fancy bars. Oh, Dubai. At 3hr 01, a filtered synth drone rises up through the hammer pounds and the drums are gradually faded back up into the mix. The pounds cease but the drone continues. After a while, hints of melody become apparent; or is it just an audio illusion? The drums seem to gain in intensity. Suddenly I’m startled by a really loud bleeping, like a tremendously obnoxious telephone; only when I hit pause do I realise that it’s part of the song, and only in one channel. Perhaps it’s an intentional wake-up call for anyone who may have drifted off by this point. I call it a day.
I’m now lounging by the pool at Rob’s apartment block on the Sunday of the trip; we’ve just ordered pizza to the poolside and devoured it there. Why do I live in England again? Having said that, the constant intrusion of flies is really grinding my gears. The aforementioned bleeping lasts for around thirty seconds to a minute and then fades out to be replaced by Drozd singing the vocal line, all the other elements remaining intact. The vocal ditches the titular lyrics in favour of “oh” and “ah” vocables, with feedback-y synth drones still whirring away on both sides of the mix and the beat still rumbling on underfoot. A rapid-fire alarm bleep comes back in in place of the vocal, staying for thirty seconds or so.
At 3hr 12, a high, squelchy synth splats regular monotone notes on one side like a marshmallow ray gun. The alarm clock re-emerges and circles the mix, and the marshmallow ray gun briefly entertains a second note. So distracted by the constant intervention of flies am I that I don’t notice the alarm leaving. Marshmallow Ray Gun – if you’ll allow us to upgrade it to such capitalised classification – then performs a compellingly otherworldly duet with an autotune-fiddled-with Drozd vocal, the latter of which soon becomes an oddly melodic wail a la the beginning of “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song”. This vocal is first to leave.
Marshmallow Ray Gun seems to have a mind of its own, hypnotically so, like a crazy, freeform, singing space worm attempting to teleport itself using faulty machinery, like the repeated wheezes of a car that won’t start. It begins to formulate chords of sorts, if sporadically. At 3hr 31, the original helium vocal returns, backed with those glow-worm-from-space chords and a tangible, lolling, shimmering bassline. It’s gentle rapture, it is. The whole mix apart from the vocal seems to fade slightly in volume every now and then; perhaps this is an illusion too.
In case you were wondering, these glow-worms are luminous pink, and they sustain after the vocal drops out altogether. There is a triumphant feel to proceedings now, as if our imagined protagonist has evaded the army’s attempts to seize the star he found on the ground, and now he’s putting that star to whatever magic function it is capable of. It feels like we’re in the Special Zone of Super Mario World.
The bass lulls gently and is infused into the groove, suggesting that it’s not a Coyne bassline, wont as they are to drive and pulsate with fuzzy abandon. A rather mad variation on the vocal turns up; it’s pulled all over the place, contorted and effect-laden beyond recognition. It sounds incredible, bouncing, whooping and echoing all over the place like some loved-up, psychedelic Daffy Duck, and shimmering like transportation lasers. It fritters into the ether then rematerializes. These are friendly, playful forces. Benevolent synths, brother!
At 3hr 43, hints of vaguely melancholic synth arpeggios emerge, disappearing upwards behind those benevolent tooting ‘n’ chirruping synths, which begin to flurry, just about luxuriously enough so as not to harsh the buzz. They are soon melodious once more, wobbling and shimmering in this outer space haven we now find ourselves in, its dark sky lit up by more magnificent colours than you would care to even try counting. And still the beat rolls on.
3hr 51 introduces what sounds like a guitar but it is so cartoonishly squelchy that it could pass as a keyboard, although the hammer-ons/off betray it for what it is. A lowered version of the vocal arrives like some peaceful yawn, and the synth toots are joined by the prior glow-worm sounds from which they evolved, like homo erectus dancing gracefully with a primate. (Erm…)
There are now so many elements jostling for centre-stage in the mix that it feels in danger of bubbling over. Happily, it just about manages to restrain itself. I am startled by another jarring alarm, this time of a harsher, squawkier, less staccato variety, but when I eventually call it a day Josh informs me that this one was real, suspecting that I may have included it in my notes. I had, and I go back to correct them while he laughs at me. We have to go and get ready for something, but I request four more minutes to take me up to the four-hour mark.
It’s not entirely clear to me whether or not there’s something new going on in the bass. The toot-y sounds melodicise upwards…
…and hit a tonal plateau which they bounce on for a bit, before they’re washed away by bubbles of synth and something rather 80’s electro-sounding towards the bass. It may seem like a laughably obvious thing to say, but this really is unlike any other Flaming Lips song, ever. Oh yes, and I’m now on my fiftieth page of notes.
I’m now at the airport, waiting to board the plane home. Dubai has its problems but there are some good times to be had there if you’re fortunate enough to have access to them. At 4hr 03, things have become quite different. Drozd’s normal-pitched vocal is back, underpinned by an ambient two-noted bassline, while various keyboard/synth sounds continue to pepper the mix, notably the drone-y feedback from earlier and a monotone string-like noise. The drums remain a constant, though. Extended periods of the title lyric alternate with vocables and it eventually begins to harmonise with itself, sounding so sweetly innocent when it does.
We board the plane at 3am local time having earlier been on a desert safari, and our plane is due to arrive back home at 6.30am London time. I sense that my plan to complete the remaining two hours on this flight may have been a trifle ambitious, so I decide to make some headway while sitting and waiting for the departure lounge to open while Josh browses the duty free goods on offer (he returns with two bottles of whiskey).
“I Found A Star On The Ground” rumbles bewitchingly on. By now I’m thinking that this should go down as a true Flaming Lips landmark in terms of quality as well as the obvious quantity. It certainly more than makes up for the patchiness of their prior 2011 material. The comedy low yawn voice – think “Talkin’ ‘Bout The Smiling Deathporn Immortality Blues (Everyone Wants To Live Forever)” or “Free Radicals” – joins in with the harmonising Drozds, overlapping them. This low-rendered vocal lends a welcome wonkiness to this fabulous trip, and I can only imagine what I’d be writing if I had taken Coyne’s suggestion of listening with lysergic accompaniment.
A lovely, simple horn motif enters, bringing a touch of orchestral majesty to proceedings. The track feels oddly stately now, as if it’s been bolstered with an espresso shot of The Soft Bulletin (again, the softest shot, of course). I’m now in the departure lounge; a silver panelled wall curves into a high ceiling, while the seats are laid out in sections of yellow, green and red, all contributing to the apt impression I’m having that I’ve just boarded some manner of space ship.
The vocal’s gone and the horns have taken a menacing, empirical turn, changing the feel of all surrounding elements in the process. It never ceases to thrill me how a single note can undergo such a drastic mood swing depending on what’s going on around it. Things have gone decidedly Death Star, but not too dark as to be discomforting; just enough to feel grand and awe-inspiring, though. It also feels suitably vast, like one giant revolving globe, a planet unto itself. Think Mario Galaxy on the Nintendo Wii.
Eventually, the horns start to mimic the main vocal refrain, thusly draining them of their prior empirical menace. They are now just awe-inspiring. Perhaps our imagined protagonist has now ascended to a higher plane or state of being, perhaps onto some great level of power or knowledge the likes of which witnesses the universe from the perspective of some divine creator. Maybe I need some sleep.
On one side of the mix, the feedback-y drone comes powering back into play. At 4hr 31, the horns start performing an array of four-note patterns which vaguely recall Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I’m now on the plane, towards the end of the journey having failed to get a decent sleep in as per. The original high-pitched vocal returns and the drums seem to kick up a notch, perhaps simple brought up in the mix. It’s an intergalactic adventure!
The intensity of the drums, horns and low synth drone feel monumental enough as it is before piercing, dramatic strings are brought in to crank things up another notch. The vocal is snipped and laid out into intermittent snatches of “ah” sounds, while in the real world a passenger announcement makes me realise that our pilot sounds an awful lot like Murray from Flight of the Conchords. As if to further awaken my senses, a quick-fire digital alarm clock is brought back in along with what sounds like a jangly guitar low in the mix.
Aforementioned strings are shrill, sporadically dissonant, dramatic and epic in a way I’m not sure even the Lips have ever touched upon before. The drums are taken out. It’s all so at once ominous and airborne that being on an aeroplane feels like an apt setting for this particular listening experience. Eventually all the various elements level out into a Soft Bulletin-esque sense of warmth and benevolence. The guitars, if that is indeed what they are, twang and jolt sufficiently merrily to drag the track from the realms of the Death Star to sounding like it could soundtrack a particularly awe-inspiring scene from a nature documentary.
The twangy guitars begin to swarm, the strings heave gently then weave in back over the top; it’s ambient, filmic and elating, so let it wash over you, cleanse you. It borders on rapture. These twangy guitars shoot out sounds that recall the unique style of erstwhile lead guitarist Ronald Jones, as if a shimmering likeness of him has appeared in the sky, riffing away like Jimi Hendrix hijacking The Lion King. It all sounds decidedly less dark and spacy now, and rather more like the dawn of an age, or at the very least of a new day.
Lo and behold, at 4hr 49 the drums and concomitant low synth rumble come charging gleefully back in to supplement the euphoria. The strings and horns seem for the most part now to have been removed, bar the occasional parp and intermittent twangy guitar hammer-ons/offs. A whirring synth drone bubbles upwards…and the aircraft begins its descent so I have to switch off. The cabin crew march down the aisles spraying deodorant in their wake, and the mechanical drone of the aeroplane mirrors that which was underpinning the track at my most recent point of cessation. The Lips have inadvertently reconciled my twin realities at this juncture; that is, my physical location and my sensory immersion.
A cheerful ‘classical jazz’ version of “Norwegian Wood” is being played over the PA system, as if a tacit nod of approval from a certain troupe of sonic adventurers from yesteryear. Making a six-hour song is an achievement enough in itself; making it mind-blowingly fantastic confirms the Lips’ rightful place amongst the pantheon of great, not to mention Drozd’s as one of the greatest (if not THE greatest) musician of his age. We should all be very thankful that his talents chanced upon such a creative sparring partner as Coyne, and vice versa.
I’m picking this back up on a train from Liverpool to London, returning from this Space gig. Fiercely ambient (if such can exist) strings land me straight in a ‘rush’. It’s sublimely immersive, complementing the track’s immersively subliminal qualities. The drums come marching back in, while horn parps sound alternately on either side of the mix. I’m dancing in my seat; this drum beat is so funky and involved that it could fortify just about anything (which, in “I Found A Star On The Ground”, it very almost has).
A low synth rumble furrows like a brow, a rugged blanket flung over the rhythm section. Prolonged exposure to said synth rug reveals it to be more multi-tonal than it had first appeared, ‘clipping’ up an octave like some kind of iridescent robo-cello. There is the briefest of interventions from a piercing string. At 4hr 57, low and high-pitched rendered voices sing together on opposite sides of the mix, conjuring some kind of celebratory space jungle scene, possibly featuring Ewoks. The voices are removed and then brought back in overlapping each other as counterpoints.
Some kind of buzzing, whirring synth maelstrom replaces the vocals and beings to consume the mix, drowning out everything else as it gains in intensity. At 5hr 02, piercing electronic sounds shoot up and away, leaving behind the drums and a simple two-note synth bass motif. Waves of ambient drones then wash these elements away until there is nothing else left. They shimmer, pulsate, radiate, become stickier and more felty, as if set ablaze. Eventually, some high-pitched electronic whines wail softly (yes, so many contradictions) in the distance as some manner of foghorn freakout unfolds on the other side of the mix. This high-pitched wailing sounds a bit like a short-circuiting computer totting up and displaying reams of mangled, nonsensical information.
I hear very clearly what sounds like a digital watch heralding a new hour; it belongs to my friend Sam, sitting next to me, but I rewind just to make sure. It’s 1pm on December 23rd. The opposing freak-outs gain and lose intensity with such synchronicity that I wonder if they are in fact the same sounds treated with different effects. They start to whir and buzz like chainsaws before dropping out altogether, leaving just the felty waves of synth. A slow, reverby vocal appears on one side. This be trippy.
The voice his a high and sustained note on the word “ground”, then does this again with an even higher sustained note. A high-pitched wail emerges like an isolated scream in space, and sticks around to infuse the trippy ambience with an otherworldly lament from inside a big old echo chamber. It then departs, leaving only the felty, shimmering waves. At 5hr 19, Lennon returns on one side to read more names as the waves continue. No siren crashes to accompany each name this time.
A sustained “I…” floats around on the same side of the mix as Lennon. It eventually begins to harmonise with itself, before its pitch wobbles downwards slightly, leaving as the distorted foghorn freak-out returns. Things are feeling ominous again, with these abrasive noises sounding like the roars of hungry/pissed-off dinosaurs in the distance. We’re in the land of the giants now, and there’s some heavy construction work taking place there too if the high, whirring, buzzing, electronic saw sounds are anything to go by.
These coarser elements fall out with the briefest snippet of a voice speaking. The felty waves are still going, however. The abrasive sounds re-emerge around 5hr 30, reminding of those weird animal/alien/alien animal noises heard in Embryonic penultimate track “Virgo Self-Esteem Broadcast”. The end is in sight. From gentle to cataclysmic goes the mix again; trying to imagine the narrative at this point seems a bridge too far.
I pick it up at 5hr 32 on a train going from Golders Green in north London to Waterloo in central London, wherefrom I shall catch a train to Surbiton in the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames for a Christmas Eve lunch at my girlfriend’s grandmother’s home. The train is loud so I’ve cranked the volume up to the extent that I feel like I’m inside a cement mixer. What sounds like a cello enters the field of play but is quickly consumed by the rampant noise, which all of a sudden drops out entirely for a glowing, twinkly, repetitive electric piano riff that gently stumbles sleepily upwards.
An abrasive, squelchy synth shows up on one side with an entirely new drum motif flying in straight down the middle; it all feels a bit like a cross between “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Pt. 2” and “The Wizard Turns On… The Giant Silver Flashlight And Puts On His Werewolf Moccasins” from criminally underrated 2006 album At War With The Mystics. It’s the kind of cartoon attack that the Lips can make sound brilliant in their sleep, perhaps did by this stage. There is now nothing ostensibly in keeping with anything that went before in this track.
Squelchy, spazzy guitar supplements the scuzzily playful feel, and I like to imagine that someone else on the carriage is listening to Nickleback, Sean Paul, Jason Derulo or some such bilge. I realise, not for the first time, that I am becoming increasingly comfortable with my musical elitism. Sod it; if we’re allowed to recognise and identify mass-produced garbage in the worlds of literature and food, to name but two, then we can ruddy well do the same for music.
My notebook is almost full now. In fact, I’m now on my eightieth page. Is that some kind of vocal in the background? The train stops at Camden Town, and I wonder if others can hear the cataclysmic racket playing out in my ears. I turn the volume down just in case. Various waves of sound and jarring blasts of noise fly in and out, keeping proceedings subtly if judderingly non-constant. These drums have Drozd’s fingerprints all over them, especially those heroic, “Yoshimi… Pt. 2”-esque fills that accompany the riff’s regular upwards walks.
Eventually (I realise that this word has been used a lot in this review, as have several others), one harsh, bubbling wave of synth washes everything away and deposits the glowing electric piano motif back into the mix. Another wave bubbles up but fails to budge it. Lennon returns once again with a list of names on one side, each followed by a sort of blunt beeping sound. It’s like a final victory lap on a particularly spaced-out Mario Kart track.
Occasional waves fail to dislodge this deceptively obstinate floatiness, making for a truly odd listening experience. Lennon announces a bizarre, really long comedy name including phrases like ‘Sex Nasty’ and ending with ‘Esquire'; hats off to whoever submitted that! It is followed by a delayed blunt beep, as if this tour de force of a name put the track off its stride momentarily. The waves still bubble up sporadically, beginning so softly and concluding so loudly that the arrival of each one almost has you assuming the brace position.
Lennon reads out the final name and then intones “we love you…we will always love you”, each utterance sampled and repeated accordingly. A lone string on one side sounds reflective notes and is soon joined by its string brethren until it becomes a full-on arrangement (the appropriate collective noun?). The electric piano appears to drop out, so it’s just these gorgeous strings and Lennon’s “we will always love you” on loop now.
Echo chamber, mock choral harmonies float in and out like ghosts through the windows of an abandoned hilltop mansion as the strings gain intensity and wind down again. What a strikingly beautiful note to bow out on. “We WILL always LOVE you,” gets the final say. Merry Christmas, everyone.
3. “Evil Minds”
“Oh, shit!” intones a heavily digitally effected Coyne as an announcement of his return to pole position, and in suitably wearied fashion given all that’s passed before it (including, somewhere in the midst of “I Found A Star On The Ground”, this very utterance).
Another death march appears to be on the cards when that increasingly familiar rotating axel of a drum shuffle plays out a few bars on its own, but a laid-back, dual-harmony vocal melody sitting atop a lazy B-major-to-A-major-and-back-again guitar jangle sees to it that we are escorted from the premises of this trip in pleasantly monged fashion.
There’s even a fuzzy, psychedelic, Beatles-y guitar solo to reassure us that what we are hearing means us no harm, holds in store for us no nasty surprises, just wants to lull us back into the real world riding on a soft bullet of implied pop sensibility through a Yellow Submarine-esque underwater garden. It’s a bit like a cross between how “Approaching Pavonis Mons By Balloon (Utopia Planitia)” and “Slow Nerve Action” ride you out of their respective parent albums, with a hint of “Bad Days” jangle for good measure.
If you’re still reading by this stage, Rocksucker would like to shake you by the hand and pass you an oversized novelty cheque made out to the amount of “$0.00 + serious kudos”. We love you. We will always love you.
We WILL always LOVE you.
Rocksucker says: Five Quails out of Five!