Music Reviews

Flaming Lips Embryonic

(Warner Bros.) Rating - 8/10

Ten years ago The Flaming Lips put a cap on the 90’s with The Soft Bulletin. The raw power of the fearless freaks was finally harnessed, making the album a symphonic shot to the head and the heart. The Lips spent most of the 00’s following that guideline. While crafting more precise, fully formed, melodic songs the band became more prominent and respected than anyone would’ve imagined from a group that began as a bunch of noise-making weirdos. After some 25 years as a band, the Flaming Lips have created their most powerful, brazen record since the hubristic four-CDs to be played simultaneously experiment, Zaireeka. As they did with the 1990’s, The Flaming Lips close out this decade with another career-defining album, Embryonic.

Embryonic’s weirdness can be best compared to the recent Christmas on Mars experience. It obliterates the senses with spooky sci-fi operatics. Most of the songs sound like they’d fit a soundtrack comfortably, conjuring distorted images of space paranoia. Convinced of the Hex opens things up with menacing start-stop rhythms, propulsive drumming, and enough guitar and keyboard effects to last the rest of the album. Chorus hooks are few, but the creativity is alive and electric, such as on the Floydian Gemini Syringes. The instrumental assault Aquarius Sabotage begins as an exercise in the limits of sound before bleeding into ethereal synths. It takes influences and draws comparisons from everything between the Ventures in Space album and the Forbidden Planet soundtrack (I know, total nerd).

Fringes of darkness have always been elemental to the Lips sound, even when they’re at their most carefree and whimsical. I Can Be a Frog, complete with animal interpretations by a playful Karen O, would fit nicely in a kindergarten music class if it weren’t so simultaneously unsettling. On the fatalistic parable If Wayne Coyne again embraces the darker side of human nature singing, “People are evil, it’s true,” before leaving it up to the listener, “But on the other side they can be gentle too/ If they decide.” Since triumphant vocal melodies aren’t the focus here, Coyne’s characteristically thin and crisp voice acts in a moderate capacity as another instrument, not the lead in this ghostly dreamscape.  

As is the case with every double album in the history of recorded music, some of the material comes off as marginally half-baked. A few forgettable tracks like You’re Bats pale next to something like Powerless, a nearly seven-minute epic with a valley of noodling guitar work sandwiched between mood music. The filler doesn’t prove too distracting since the pace is well set and the highlights are spread evenly enough to resist frontloading. Side B hides the beautiful single Silver Trembling Hands, which announces itself with a scream that is sure to wake anyone who might have dozed off. It all ends with the hypnotic march of Watching the Planets, perfect for a shout-a-long.

This is an album, complete and without actual single material. There’s no life-affirming Race for the Prize. There is no Do You Realize? At this point not trying to rewrite those songs is the smartest thing the band could do. Coyne and company are old by indie rock standards and make no fuss about trying to be cool. This allows them to operate at their most natural best, even if it is a little taxing on the rest of us. It’s hard to harp on the Lips for some unavoidable double album overindulgences when they jump at each challenge with such gusto and flamboyance. Embryonic is a true 21st century freak-out and it’s only appropriate to end this decade with such an ambitious, intrepid undertaking.