Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Flaming Lips: Embryonic (2009)

(Warner Bros.)


The great misconception about the Flaming Lips' eleventh proper album and miraculous rebirth from a mediocre midlife crisis is that it's an injection of youth, the sound of a band preparing to enter its fourth decade and still doing crazy, far out, original stuff. That's nonsense. Know what Embryonic really is? An entrance of a band of old professionals, as far along in their career as the Rolling Stones were when they recorded Steel fucking Wheels, into the rock & roll pantheon. It's an album of music about its own legend, about the tropes and heaviness of our most durable modern-day mythology.

And to throw a bone to those who felt differently, it really is a masterpiece of psychedelia, complete and actually unnerving like nothing since the genuine article of the 13th Floor Elevators, the Electric Prunes and "Eight Miles High." More than kitschy and willfully weird, it's weighty, genuinely surreal, kind of scary. There's a sense of trippiness here that is no throwback; it can envelop you, and probably will unless you're immune to some of the wildest, bone-shakingest beats and noises heard in recent rock music. It's a solemnly single-minded effort in a way, as disorienting as its provocative cover art, and what makes it tick is how cleanly it escapes from the Lips' carefully cultivated (since 1983) cult of quirky personality. Wayne Coyne is unrecognizable on many of the tracks, and to put it simply the explosive drums and brain-frying guitar and keyboard parts are as far away from The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi as, why not, Exile on Main Street was from Between the Buttons. The Stones comparison looms large because it gives the Lips a crucial victory, an artistic triumph: the ability to sound this fucking uncompromised and risky almost thirty years in while nevertheless subscribing wholeheartedly to the aural, almost quaintly traditional persuasion so vital to all music that strives for menace, attitude, chaos.

Coyne has cited the White Album and Sandinista! as key influences, we'll throw in Exile because why not, and it's apt; while Embryonic is considerably shorter and more focused than either, they share a simple enough conceit -- the sprawl, the gushing forth of all manner of material, the deliberate eschewing of quality control, and in all of this resides a beauty that the respective bands may otherwise never have touched. There's nothing quite like the feeling you get when the creepy-crawl deliberate pacing of "Powerless" plods along until you feel quite insane, the pounding massiveness of "Worm Mountain" that seems to shake the earth, the crunch and dread, the primal and the fantastic in "Watching the Planets," and most of all the way that "Silver Trembling Hands" functions as one of many ear-teasing interludes until it unexpectedly takes flight into the kind of rapturous frenzy that dream pop groups the world over are bound to envy always.

There's pop here, sure; the first three cuts are centered in something resembling conventional Flaming Lips territory, and then the tension sets in. The first half is all expertly sustained drama and pregnancy, metallic clanging and the same red light brain-friend meandering that made those Beatles and Clash records so weirdly addictive, and then the second half just sort of bursts into a series of organic freakouts tempered by distorted, slithery reflection. The experience would be otherworldly if it didn't seem so devoted to an evocation of our teenage nights getting lost in our old records. In either respect, it is an utter phantasmagoric success.

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