Despite their many artistic failures and missteps along the way, The Flaming Lips have truly carved out a unique sphere for their existence as a band over their expansive career that started all the way back in 1983. On those early records, they were certainly a strange, quirky band with some good if not great songs before they evolved into a pretty tasty psych rock group in their middle stage. It wasn't really until The Soft Bulletin was released in 1999 that The Flaming Lips began to flourish and mature with their use of expansive atmospherics. Since then, the Lips have embarked on a trailblazing journey of big ideas, head scratching experiments, and consistent work ethic. I don't even think it's possible to imagine how busy these past ten years have been for Wayne Coyne. He produced a feature length film, added to the already bizarre live show, and released EPs on USB drives hidden in various strangely shaped food items (like a gummy skull with a Marijuana flavored brain). This kind of artistic freedom doesn't come easy and Wayne is finally enjoying the fruits of his labor.
So why the hell does The Terror, the newest album from The Flaming Lips, sound so fucking dystopian? When we were told that the album would "freak some people out", we thought it would be in a traditional Flaming Lips kind of way. Instead, The Terror in genuinely filled with the despair, insanity, and mania of a world catapulting towards progress and catastrophe simultaneously. Sure, many of these themes that are ultimately reflected in the lyrics and music could easily be a product of the issues within The Flaming Lips' personal lives (such as Wayne Coyne's breakup with his partner of 25 years), but I suspect the band has been heading towards a fully formed statement in this direction since At War With the Mystics. As their 16th studio album (technically) to date, The Terror represents everything a record should sound like from a band that has been around this long. It is not only a perfect synthesis of almost everything they have tried in the past, but also a startling reinvention of context too.
Part of this has to do with the incredible production of the album. The Flaming Lips have clearly been learning and perfecting studio magic for a while now. Think of the lush soundscapes of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and magnify it x10,000. Strap on a good pair of headphones and the waves and layers of sound become a serious reason to stick around. This album just sounds amazing. Bells and whistles sure are a lot of fun, not to mention pretty on the ears, but what of the actual music? Pretty much from the outset, The Terror is a challenging album, especially when experienced in a solitary manner. This isn't really a bad thing by any means, but the record is definitely best suited for those particularly desperate moods that don't swing by so often. It is truly a huge undertaking to play the whole thing through in one uninterrupted listening experience, but the flow of the songs into one another and the overall cohesiveness of the project seem to suggest that it was intended to be consumed whole.
If you can hang in there, an immense reward awaits you on the other side. The first stages of the record are immediate and satisfying enough, but after a while, a strange frustration, or possibly even irritation takes over, as if your brain isn't used to making sense of this stuff. That feeling continually builds until what is probably the three quarter mark, at which point complete euphoria takes over. Even after you take off the phones, the experience stays with you. Isn't that exactly what a great work of art should do?
Beyond that crucial aspect, The Terror contains some of the best material The Flaming Lips have committed to tape. Album opener "Look The Sun Is Rising" just pounds away with a tremendous rolling drum line that suddenly morphs into a techno garbled strobe, all neatly wrapped around in a swirling synth line and computer overloads. On the other hand "Butterfly, How Long It Takes To Die" channels Radiohead's best tendencies from "Kid A" before going in a whole different direction from there. While Wayne Coyne stated that the album was about how we "would disappear" without love, the extended jam surrounding eerily robotic sirens of "You Lust" seem to point towards a 21st century technological freak out album as well. For most of the album, Wayne's vocals are reduced to a whispery, ghostly, and prophetic role. There are a lot of moments where you can't even hear what he's saying. It hardly matters, though, because it blankets the songs with enough melody that the general gist is understood. "Try To Explain" is simply one of those songs that brings you closer to the center of the universe. Beautifully scenic and tragic, it paints a portrait of a lonely traveler of space and time who ascends to the greatest of heights, only to crash down in a fiery explosion as shooting stars streak by. No words can do this one justice.
The Terror is out now.