11 October 2009
Album Review: The Flaming Lips - Embryonic
I'm surprised Warner Bros. let this album see the light of day--who listened to this and decided that, despite its complete and utter disregard for Top 40 polish, Auto-Tune shine, and concise songwriting, this was music that would make the record label lots of money? Wayne Coyne and co. have never cared much for convention, sure, but Embryonic takes the band completely out of their familiar environment and gives us an idea of what Can might have sounded like if they found out they liked the sound of Vivian Girls.
On one hand, we have the sound of The Flaming Lips that is familiar to anyone who's heard any of their work after 1997. Punchy drumloops propel all manner of synthesizers and guitars through striking, beautifully rendered chords, as well as Wayne Coyne's own strangely in-tune voice. And with their carefully perfected bag of tools, the band shows off their artistic mastery of their instruments, sailing through tender slowness akin to The Soft Bulletin and rocking out like they'd only started touring yesterday in support of Clouds Taste Metallic.
And yet, there's this new side of The Flaming Lips that we haven't seen before--their experimental side. Avant garde? Maybe. It's arguable that Embryonic is that motivated to be so abstract when so much of the album focuses on melodic and rhythmic elements, as opposed to pure noise or arrhythmic pieces. Time signatures? Check. Key signature? Check. Melody? Check. The real avant garde masters would be offended. Lightning Bolt wouldn't let Embryonic into the same room as their material. Even listeners new to any Flaming Lips work at all would be able to tell that there are recurring elements that might constitute their repertoire--the drum loops, the voice (of Wayne Coyne), the slow, throbbing brainwave-stimulating synth loops, the dreamy atmosphere. If you were hoping that the band would venture into Throbbing Gristle sounds, you would be wrong. This is definitely tonal.
The result is the musical equivalent of half and half: half old material, half new modes of expressing that old material. Part of me feels like I'm simply hearing the sappy parts of The Soft Bulletin fed through a guitar amplifier. Is that a bad thing? If you don't mind lo-fi, you won't mind the new modus operandi. If you demand that classic Flaming Lips audial polish, this record will both appeal to you and annoy you to death. You will hear echoes of previous album At War with the Mystics (think "The Sound of Failure/It's Dark... Is It Always this Dark??") and some more. Get ready for pinging delays with deep reverb ("Powerless"), what may be called way too much vocoder saturation ("The Impulse"), freakouts! ("Silver Trembling Hands," "Virgo Self-Esteem Broadcast," "Scorpio Sword"), some random dude doing some poetry recital or something like that ("Sagittarius Silver Announcement"), glitch-style rhythmic noise ("Convinced of the Hex," "Worm Mountain"), and just about every freaky trick in Wayne Coyne's playbook.
In a way, Embryonic is the natural evolution of The Flaming Lips. Their earliest albums were noisy, wretched, and wild. Then the band matured and smoothed out the edges. Then they found nostalgia for their youth and merged their two worlds. We are at that last point. And as I listen to the songs again and again, I realize how much this style suits the band--so weird, but so beautiful. It's like The Album Leaf got drunk with TV on the Radio. Even as Wayne Coyne croons high and slow in "If" and a lazy bass strums along and all manner of amplification and synthesizer crash together for static jam "Worm Mountain," the twin paths are never more apparent. If you're left wondering why the hell The Flaming Lips would bother to do something so different, the answer is that it's really the same thing they've always done. Perhaps we're in familiar territory after all. But with The Flaming Lips, who can tell?