Review: The Flaming Lips – The Terror
Published on March 25th, 2013 | Jonny Abrams
For varying reasons, Rocksucker hadn’t harboured too much in the way of expectations for The Flaming Lips’ two preceding albums, 2006’s At War With the Mystics and 2009’s Embryonic. Having then been utterly blown away by each – you know, change-the-way-you-listen-to-music, this-is-their-best-album-yet blown away – we could scarcely have been expecting more from The Terror. It’s the Lips’ own fault for being perhaps the world’s greatest functioning band.
Although comprising of only nine tracks to Embryonic‘s eighteen, The Terror is nevertheless fifty-five minutes long and anything but an easy listen: it’s desolate, frequently jarring and unabatingly morose, akin to the bleaker moments of Embryonic and without any hint of the playfulness that lit up last year’s collaborations album The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends.
If all you know of The Flaming Lips is Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” and their wildly celebratory live shows, you’ll be in for a bit of a shock. Those who still yearn for the elating, psychedelic fuzz-rock of the Lips’ early days are unlikely to find any crumbs of comfort, and it’s unlikely that any of these songs will wind up being played at weddings à la “Do You Realize??”. Interesting that its sessions overlapped with those of Heady Fwends, indeed there may be something to the elsewhere-posited notion of that being Wayne Coyne’s album and The Terror being Steven Drozd’s album.
Whether Coyne was to be believed that Drozd had had a relapse, or Drozd to be believed that Coyne was exaggerating, The Terror very much reflects Coyne’s accompanying essay on the record, in which he sums it up as “bleak”, “disturbing” and “hopeless”. Opener “Look… The Sun is Rising” may boast a more optimistic title than excluded preceding single “Sun Blows Up Today” but it’s a darn sight more foreboding sounding with its minor key, doleful “oh oh oh”s and jarring electronic valve releases. Notable also is the kind of shuffling ‘inside out’ drum beat first given a run-out on “Drug Chart” and “In Our Bodies, Out of Our Heads” from 2011’s Gummy Song Skull EP.
Monotone screeches of guitar enter the fray and proceed to dominate, making it abundantly clear that The Flaming Lips have chosen to begin life on Bella Union with a most un-Bella-Union-like LP. For all its desolation and sparseness, The Terror is deceptively busy of mix and therefore rewarding of both focused listening and repeat plays. Rocksucker must’ve listened to the album a double-figure amount of times by now so the thing’s sunk its claws in – what it hasn’t done yet, though, is totally overwhelm us like Mystics and Embryonic had done by this point, not to mention The Soft Bulletin before that (Yoshimi didn’t sit entirely well at first but we’re a sucker for it now). Factor in the run of albums from 1990’s In a Priest Driven Ambulance through to 1997’s groundbreaking four-CD Zaireeka – heck, the first three albums too – and it’s quite a run of form they’re on, personnel changes notwithstanding.
One of the things that strikes as un-Lips-like about The Terror is the consistency of mood and sound across its duration: in other words, “Look… The Sun is Rising” sets the tone for the entire album, without exception. “Be Free, A Way” sounds like it features Drozd’s sweet choirboy voice as its lead vocal, peeping out amidst the shimmering waves of electronic desolation, all of which is granted a Mystics-esque coda. The Coyne-handled “Try to Explain” is like Embryonic cut “Evil” inasmuch as it sounds as if it could have been beamed from an hermetic tank at the bottom of some intergalactic ocean, at once not of this world and yet invested with its sadness. As with the whole album, it’s hard to make out the lyrics, although “To nowhere / To no-one” is delivered so dolefully as to be really quite striking. This sparse, chirruping wilderness houses a melody that in isolation might even sound sweet, and it ends with some chatter for that ‘subject under observation’ feel. It’s a wonderful track.
The Phantogram-featuring “You Lust” showcases a compelling hiss/whisper/hissper of “LUST TO SUCCEED! LUST TO SUCCEED!”, its immediate surroundings pure “Sagittarius Silver Announcement” or other such Embryonic number. Otherwise, it’s more of the same: that is, a sweet lament of a vocal melody embedded in a cold, harsh electronic wilderness. This one goes on for flippin’ ages, too, albeit that includes its twinkly, whirry, “Virgo Self-Esteem Broadcast”-reminding-of coda. “The Terror” – we’d call it “the title track” but that would mean starting successive sentences with ‘the’, and yes we do realise that’s technically still the case, but at least now there’s a quotation mark acting as a grammatical buffer – is a relative trot by dint of its busy hi-hat, although this is soon presented with a brilliantly effective counterpart in the form of a downwards-creeping bass thing a bit like the one in “These Boots Were Made for Walking”. It attracts a procession of electronic wibbles that encircle it and jolly well ensnare it, the mix becoming swarmed with jarring elements far removed from, say, “Race for the Prize” or “Fight Test”.
Aside from being perhaps the most despondent track on an especially despondent album, “You Are Alone” sounds as if Drozd’s ‘Mickey Mouse’ voice is trading blows with Coyne’s ‘speaking register’ voice – and then it’s time for the previously released “Butterfly, How Long It Takes to Die”, which we described in our review of Strobo Trip Light and Audio Phase Illusions Toy, the 2011 ‘EP’ it shares with the six-hour-long “I Found a Star on the Ground”, in the following terms:
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.
Now it comes with an extra added coda of more shimmering wilderness and sweet/unsettling Drozd vocables. There you have it, then.
“Turning Violent” sees Drozd falsetto-ing “Turn ooooonnn / Turn ooooonnnn” within a chuffing, huffing, buzzing, swooshing space lab of isolation: it introduces juddering noise without quite erupting from it, leaving it to “Always There… In Our Hearts” to cap off The Flaming Lips’ most unified song cycle to date with another of those delightfully shuffly ‘inside out’ drumbeats. We’d have liked to see “Squishy Glass” from Gummy Song Fetus given a spot of touching up but, for all that it could be an incredible opening or closing track for an album, its face probably doesn’t fit this time around.
The Terror is the first Flaming Lips LP not to take you on a journey so much as expose you to and encase you in one distinct atmosphere, but then the Lips pride themselves on (and are to be cherished for) doing things differently, even (especially) to their own prior doings (we’ll stop this now). However, if Embryonic, At War With the Mystics, The Soft Bulletin and Zaireeka are five-quail albums, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Clouds Taste Metallic and Transmission from the Satellite Heart four-and-a-half-quail albums, and In a Priest Driven Ambulance and Hit to Death in the Future Head four-quail albums, then at this stage we can ‘only’ award The Terror four…but that’s just, like, our opinion, man. Others will swear by Yoshimi, others by the first three albums, and so on and so forth. Others still won’t even be into The Flaming Lips at all, and with each passing triumph that is increasingly their loss.
Confessional tangent: still yet to listen to the twenty-four-hour song. Must get round to it one day, with ‘one day’ very much the operative term and main sticking point.
Rocksucker says: Four Quails out of Five!
The Terror will be released on 1st April through Bella Union. For more information, please visit the official Flaming Lips website.