Call it willfully perverse career suicide or seeking out new musical frontiers but one thing is undeniable; the Flaming Lips’ sprawling new 18-track disc Embryonic is a bold volte face away from the Hanna Barbera, orch-pop they have been mining since 1999’s Soft Bulletin. If the day-glo quirkiness was becoming a bit too cloying by 2006’s At War With The Mystics, Embryonic is a paradigm-shifting stroke of audacity that will alienate some, but entice others. Critical opinion is already polarized, making it ‘vital, complex and new’, at least according to Oscar Wilde.
Opening salvo “Convinced Of The Hex” crash lands the listener into the Lips’ reconfigured aesthetic. A dense, swirling slice of dystopic psychedelia (imagine Can’s “Mushroom” sound-tracking the ‘happening’ in Midnight Cowboy). This is where krautrock meets the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” in a foreboding slice of nihilism, apparently inspired by repeated viewings of The Night Porter.
The track’s ricochet rhythms, sparkling fender rhodes and abrasive guitars are all over the rest of Embryonic. Indeed, “Aquarius Sabotage” could be “Bitches Brew”-era Miles Davis, retooled to the specifications of a garage band. When Alice Coltrane-like harp trills and other sumptuous flourishes seem to tantalizingly hark back to their former technicolour incarnation, they are quickly sucked back into the vortex of the mix. However, it’s when they slow things down that the contrast with their former selves becomes most stark. “Evil” is a funereal dirge replete with theremin-on-downers synths and disarming jolts of distortion. This bleak terrain is topped off with a lyric of disenchantment (‘people are evil…and they’ll hurt you if they can’) and a Wayne Coyne vocal of world-weary fragility. There’s no reassuring sugarcoating on Coyne’s existential musings anymore and The Flaming Lips soundlab here resembles some desolate, teutonic warehouse as opposed to the aural equivalent of Willy Wonka’s factory.
Portishead’s Third springs to mind as a kindred spirit not just in its palpable sense of unease, its destablizing bursts of noise or in its modus operandi being tearing up one’s own rule-book. Both seem to update the ominous, apocalyptic strand of post-summer of love 60’s rock. Of course, Embryonic‘s very structure recalls the profuse miscellany and indulgent creativity that characterized the doubles of that era (the aforementioned “Bitches Brew”, “Electric Ladyland”). If The Beatles’ White Album is a reference point at all, it’s in the radiophonic voices (the lips enlist the services of mathematician Thorsten Wormann for announcements) and the tangential ‘turning the dial’ collage of Revolution 9 But the Flaming Lips are too liberating a proposition to succumb to slavish homage. Indeed, at one point “Powerless” breaks out into a frazzled guitar solo that recalls Roger McGuinn’s channeling of Coltrane on The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High”. This is no xerox: it mutates into something entirely of its own distorted design.
Nowhere is the comparison with recent Portishead more apparent than in the marauding “See The Leaves” which comes off like camouflaged trip -hop with its furtive groove and rapid-fire drum fills. When it disperses in to a spooky spectral coda, occupying some bizarre midpoint between ELO and Tangerine Dream, the scope of the music on offer here seems breathtaking.
It’s not always easy listening and as is entirely befitting of a disc called Embryonic, some tracks seem inchoate, as if they were conceived as they were recorded (it was sculpted largely from jams). But even when the hooks are obfuscated by turgid noise as on “Worm Mountain” (featuring a barely audible MGMT) , an unrelenting love of sonic tricks keeps things propulsive. Similarly, “I Can Be a Frog” veils its John Barry-worthy luxuriant opulence with the muffled animal impressions of Karen O. Embryonic often sounds like the work of several different bands sometimes playing simultaneously (remember the 4-cd Zareika was actually just that). This wall of sound never lapses into sludge simply because their protean grasp of music (what Coyne refers to as the ‘psychedelic sword mentality’) has a rarefied air about it, flying its freak flag in the face of prosaic ipod conformity.
So much so that two moments of relatively straightforward loveliness are buried amid the mire at the end of the disc. “Silver Trembling Hands” is a delirious ghost ride of a song, its juggernaut beat and b-movie, sci-fi effects sounding like nothing less than some obscure 60’s garage band nugget shot through the lens of Luis Bunuel. It then shifts gears to break out into a haze of sun-drenched lysergic pop that is the closest they get here to the Lips of yore. “Watching the Planets” is a vast, strident finale where the otherworldly fantasia of vari-speed vocals is bed-rocked by a drum sound as colossal as Led Zeppelin. Such air-punching swagger suggests a band creatively rejuvenated by their 18-track odyssey.
Embryonic is an old-fashioned beast, a work to be enjoyed in its’ entirety, preferably bursting forth from speakers rather than headphones (it can sound cluttered and diminished on an ipod). Its’ too easy to suggest that the Lips could have excised some of these excesses and made a more economic record, if they had then it wouldn’t be the warped, idiosyncratic thing of beauty that it is. And this is shape-shifting, questing music of the highest calibre.
-Matthew Lindsay, contributer