by Mike Mineo
The author for the impending Flaming Lips biography must have it rough. There are few bands as consistently groundbreaking as Wayne Coyne and company, who would often devote concepts or stylistic trends into their work that defy the conventional norm. There was never a concise way to describe this band, whether referring to their one-of-a-kind live performances where a glowing Coyne-filled ball crowd-surfs in the audience or the ambitiously lofty career which describes their sound as still not concisely defined after over a dozen albums. This is precisely why the Flaming Lips will be remembered as one of the best bands of the past three decades, for their ability to remain entirely relevant and thought-provoking throughout that span in the midst of several stylistic revolutions is exemplary of their masterful demeanor. The thing with the Flaming Lips is that they were always ahead of the curve, preceding ’90s alt-rock with their late ’80s material and symphonic electronic-pop with legendary cuts like Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots in the ’00s and its ’90s precedents. The latter is perhaps their most popular release, though part of the band’s beauty is that everyone seems to have a different favorite album. Yoshimi, The Soft Bulletin, and Transmissions from the Satellite Heart usually appear to be among the favorites, showing why The Flaming Lips have indeed lasted this long. The diverse acclaim attributes to a lack of consensual decisiveness among fans, which is strongly indicative of the group’s grasp of incomparable creativity and consequential stylistic relevance.
It would be easy to give the Flaming Lips a free pass at this point since they have yet to release a lackluster album in their 26-year career, but their releases are often such a mind-consuming experience that it becomes impossible not to criticize or complement. Their twelfth studio album, Embryonic, is particularly true of this. Immediate comparisons this will involve Zaireeka, their massive other double-disc offering, but only because of the effort’s enormous scope. There has been no other Flaming Lips album that is strongly comparable to this one, both in thematic effort and general style. Basically, Embryonic is a mess when compared to the ethereal works of Yoshimi or The Soft Bulletin where laid-back anthems like “Do You Realize??” and “Race for the Prize” were Lips standards. On Embryonic there are no heartwarming singles that casual fans will adore, nor fluttery examples of bubblegum-pop that provide some ease to the always-present level of experimentation. So, with this in mind, why exactly is Embryonic one of their best releases to date? Like many Flaming Lips releases, the reason becomes apparent after a full listen. Even though there is little conceptual theme or directed cohesiveness on Embryonic, the group’s tendency to constantly explore and engross in varying musical realms emits a vast array of satisfaction that accumulates throughout the release to eventually create one of the most lasting impressions of the year.
Like most Flaming Lips albums, Embryonic begins with a kick-in-the-face sort of track. Guitar distortions whimper in disarray, the reverb-heavy percussion plays with a sense of unpredictable fury, and Coyne delivers an eerie croon that finds itself reminiscent of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis in its drolly robotic allure. In doing so, “Convinced of the Hex” is a clear ode to both Kraut-rock and post-punk. The layers of sound build up until the rhythm section becomes the showstopper, gradually introducing bursts of bass as the percussion intensifies with heavy hi-hats. It nearly makes the listener picture an automation line, one superb addition after another. The different keyboard chord that appears after every other measure also does a great job of keeping this one in place in adding subtly invigorating forms of melodic variation in addition to Coyne’s vocals. One prominent method for his vocals throughout the album is to mix deadpan precision with emotive fury, like in “Convinced of the Hex” when he goes from a Curtis sound-alike to possessing the yelps of Britt Daniel (a la Spoon’s “The Ghost of You Lingers”) in the most inimitable way possible. This occurs again in “The Sparrow Looks Up at the Machine”, one of the most conventional Flaming Lips tracks due to its emphasis on electronic psychedelia. The production can actually be compared to Radiohead’s In Rainbows in that way, with multitudes of static bass clashing with heavily involved percussion to create atmospheres both ethereal and chaotic. Along with “Convinced of the Hex”, it packs an outstanding one-two punch to kick off an album full of surprises and engrossing stylistic maneuvers.
“The Sparrow Looks Up at the Machine” provides the listener with some nice Yoshimi nostalgia, though the album rarely goes in that direction again. “Evil”, one of the few ballads on the album, is one of the few exceptions. A synth progression possessing three notes repeats for several months as Coyne laments the past’s irreversible injustices. Backing vocals caress the melody nicely with the additional strings, though it never brings the listener to a place of complete satisfaction. Sure, it is soothing and relatively harmless, but when preceded by two gems it evidently lacks the full-bodied enigma despite its initial beauty. The same can be said for “The Impulse”, a nice novelty lullaby featuring vocoded synths over a half-symphonic, half-jazzy layered background. Once again though, the novelty of vocoders wears thin to the point where the majestic use of strings cannot salvage it enough. Perhaps it is being too critical, but when an artist releases a double-album there has to be due consideration for what would have been better removed. These are nice efforts, but they pale in comparison to rich compositions like “Convinced of the Hex” and “Powerless”, where constant compositional evolution is occurring throughout the entire five or six minutes. Coyne is a hard worker and extremely talented musician, but one gets the feeling that when he is not satisfied with a song he topples on strings or similar additives until the issue is cloaked, whether it is repetition or instrumental miscues. On a double-album, just tossing it out altogether would have been the wiser.
“Powerless” is indeed the biggest achievement on an album full of many, combining evolutionary post-rock with the touch of sparkling keys and unconventionally boisterous guitar solos, the latter of which sounds more like impulsive chordal strikes than melodic construction. There are several guitars to accompany keys which glitter gracefully throughout, the most prominent emitting a single chord that abrasively leads the effort with heavy distortion and hand swipes. It is a wonderful technique, mainly because the subtle and less audible guitar accompaniments provide beautiful additions thanks purely to the group’s songwriting skills. The only major variation occurs when the western-y bass line suddenly drops a few pitches with each succession, the lead guitar remaining steadily boisterous as the others emit stunning melodic whispers that will send chills down under listener’s spine. The way these instruments and melodies combine to create this epic force is absolutely stunning, making this one of the best Flaming Lips tracks released. The type of keys present here are used prominently in most of the album’s tracks, whether in the disastrously noisy Miles David-influenced “Aquarius Sabotage” or the more cohesive “Sagittarius Silver Announcement”, where Bowie meets new-age psychedelia in the vein of Spiritualized. In messes like “Aquarius Sabotage” or the overly percussive “Your Bats” it is too hidden away, especially in the latter where mostly everything is indistinguishable apart from the overly spastic percussion. In the more focused efforts though, it reminds us that this is a group intent on mastering both loud guitars and twinkles of keys. Hardly surprising considering their prolific resume.
The second disc begins with another knockout force in “The Ego’s Last Stand”, an effort that shows off the rhythmic precision of this album beautifully. Percussion has never before been so prominent for the Flaming Lips, so it is nice to see a diversified amount of efforts in regard to all sorts of instruments being the beneficiary in leading tracks. Percussion and bass appear to converse here by rarely coexisting, instead taking turns speaking before guitars and brass-like mute effects concoct a truly spectacular and anthemic chorus. Bass has always been a steady force though, so seeing its dominance in efforts like “Watching the Planets” is no surprise but as satisfying as ever. A stunning closer, it is a ceaseless expedition into fury that is complemented by a vigorous rhythm section and highly ardent vocal melody. Its heavy reverb, intentional sort of audible disarray, and heavy emphasis on rhythm are all indicative of the album it is placed on. Embryonic is hardly the most beautiful album to the Flaming Lips’ name, but its rough edges are so defined that the result is more engrossing than any of their albums from the past decade. Like any double-album there are a handful of tracks whose absence would not be missed, but the highlights are so memorable and purely fascinating in approach that it propels Embryonic to the echelon of 2009’s best releases.