April 17, 2013

Test Spins: The Flaming Lips, The Terror

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Gas masks, searing wasteland winds and groaning iron cross beams — sun-scorched and more than a tad blistered, the Lips have finally ventured into dystopia. The journey was long; 30 years, 13 studio albums and a glorious transcendence from Oklahoman two-car-garage psych rock to charismatic, experimental production warlords have seen Wayne Coyne and Co. through to The Terror’s imagined apocalypse. And they’re exhausted — exhausted and in dire need of ChapStick. Like a wearied choir half-heartedly hailing the descension of a rusted metallic messiah, the Flaming Lips’ first studio effort since 2009’s mechanized Embryonic, is a machinist’s nightmare. Bleakly industrial, a continuity of creaking metal frameworks and dilating toad-croak generator whirs, mold The Terror into a haunting, entropic futurism. It’s rather fitting, then, that the clarion peals of Coyne-ist, stridently philosophical lyricism found in At War With the Mystics and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots has given way to a haggard and distant quasi-atonality. To chronicle the group’s growth and decay is to span genres and mutinies, verve and fatigue. Found in the tiredness of Coyne’s fatalism is some Lip-licious synecdoche for the band’s still-developing maturity, even after thirty years in the business.

Utterly devoid of the synth-heavy, cathartic melodies of The Soft Bulletin, the latest in the Flaming Lips’ studio canon is a well-organized, gapless chaos of atmosphere and overproduction. Coyne’s voice fades in and out of audible range, shadowed often by arrhythmic howling, rust-colored wires and saran-wrap percussion, throbbing with hollow syncopation. The solitary sounds of Embryonic are absent, with metallic groans begging for oil and blending hazily into a cauldron of despairing noise. The echoing clamor of “You Are Alone” roars back from a desolate ironworks, and we, enraptured by the doom-heavy aura of factory assemblage, are caught between wiry turbulence and grating machinery, alone. And that’s the primary theme of the album: the dissonance between man and machine. Rather, the Flaming Lips have been tackling the evils of technology for decades, and only now has that tech gained the upper hand. The salmon-colored robots came close in Yoshimi, and “the softest bullet ever shot” shed some blood, but with The Terror, our ears at last take in Coyne’s twisted mellotron Armageddon.

The album is a dreary experience, not a hit-heavy pop dream; but don’t be fooled. Its strength lies in its ability to manipulate the senses — images of an intense nothingness littered with rusting machinery manifest themselves with shocking clarity in the Lips’ carefully crafted sound. Hornet-buzz kazoos and pulsating electric currents accompany screeching gears and other industrial havoc to compete with and swallow up the half-spoken lyrics of “Turning Violent.” The title track trudges onward after a thirteen minute brew of television static and serpent-Jafar-esque caustic whispers of “Lust to succeed,” laying a steady percussive groundwork reminiscent of The Avalanches’ Since I Left You. “Butterfly (How Long It Takes To Die)” cascades shimmering synths down a wall of sparks and sonic friction, devouring Coyne’s apocalyptic vision in a windstorm of incisive apathy. The overall effect, with a few aural nods to Zaireeka and Telepathic Surgery, is a set of scorched lungs and the takeaway notion that sometimes we just lose.

With the fitting anticlimax of “Always There … In Our Hearts,” we’re left to step into the bleak unknown and find our way forward again. The album cover, like a fistful of brightly colored sand to the eyes, says as much. The gapless cohesion suggests forward movement, a bleak and weary trek through an abandoned nuclear reactor. We have to keep moving, through the blaring foghorns and the static, past the blown fuses and jamming gear belts. There’s just no other way.

Striking a vinyl baker’s dozen is no small feat; in fact, so far have the Flaming Lips come since the psychedelic grunge of ’86 debut Hear It Is, that their legacy has become self-referent. Guiding the rudder in the haphazardly brilliant direction of his choosing, Wayne Coyne pilots the Lip ship onward through choppy, unknown waters in the interest of a genuine, wonderfully nuanced curiosity. So the Flaming Lips sail on, narrating their own history through the roiling waters of music until, at last, they run aground. And, in laying flowers at their own grave, the legend will conclude and, dammit, it’ll be beautiful.

Original Author: Matt Hudson