October 13, 2009
Warner Bros. Records
Victim of Loudness War? Yes
Throughout the course of their now twenty-five year career, The Flaming Lips have never failed to keep the surprises coming. Whether it be their shift away from psychedelic punk with 1992’s Hit to Death In the Future Head, their more commercial leanings with 1993’s Transmissions From the Satellite Heart or the sprawling audio experiment that was 1997’s Zaireeka, the band always has a new trick up its sleeve and it more often than not proves to be a winner. The band’s artistic success culminated with the 1999 masterwork, The Soft Bulletin, a loose concept album that was equal parts beautiful and dark and set the bar amazingly high for any releases to follow it. Fortunately, the band rose to the task, submitting Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots in 2002, an album that closely rivaled its predecessor in both commercial and creative victory.
The Flaming Lips found themselves in an interesting position with regards to the follow-up to their 2006 release, At War With the Mystics. While its content was on par with the two records that came before it, Mystics sadly failed to make much of an imprint with the general public, reluctantly going Gold but making far less of an impression as its predecessors. Thus, The Flaming Lips were in the unique place where a musical reinvention was practically begging to be had. Enter their latest release, Embryonic, an album that is just as creative yet far more haunting than anything the band has released to date.
Embryonic opens with “Convinced of the Hex,” a track that eerily drags along before winding up in an anthemic chant that proves undeniably catchy in spite of itself. In just under four minutes, the track effectively sets the tone for the record, a dark, chilling soundscape that almost fights your enjoyment of it. Take “Aquarius Sabotage,” for example: never before have ear-splittingly distorted guitars and over-modulated vocals joined together to create such a seductive track. It’s a sound that shouldn’t be appealing, yet somehow is.
That’s not to say that the entirety of Embryonic is nerve-testing noise. On the contrary, Wayne Coyne and Co. insert enough melodic pleasure into the proceedings to effectively counter the aural assault found in the other tracks. “Evil,” is a prime example of such quiet moments, with its gently synthesizer tones and wonderfully subdued vocals combining to create a sound that is anything but what its title suggests. The same goes for the gently-lilting “If,” which is perhaps the best entry into the Flaming Lips catalog since the brilliant “Do You Realize??” nearly a decade ago.
The simple fact remains that if you weren’t on board with The Flaming Lips up until now, Embryonic isn’t going to change your mind. Despite its complete stylistic turnaround, the music contained here isn’t interested in attracting new listeners. Rather, it seeks to give those who have stuck around for the last few decades something new to deal with. After all, that’s the whole point of the Flaming Lips – they never let you (or themselves, for that matter) get too comfortable with their sound. So sit back and watch the planets with one of the few acts left that stills dares to be original, inspired and off-center in such a mainstream musical climate.
– Ian Rice
To purchase a copy of Embryonic, please click here.
The Flaming Lips – The Soft Bulletin
May 17, 1999
Warner Bros. Records
Victim of Loudness War? No
In June of 1999, all bets were off as to which release would receive the honor of being regarded as the best album of the year. The remaining six months would have no chance of producing a fine a record as The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin, a lush and vibrant soundscape that was as subtle as it was bombastic. As impressive a feat as that was at the time, it is perhaps more of a testament to the album’s strength that few others have been released since by any artist that have come close to matching its near-perfection. Sure, masterminds such as Radiohead, Neil Young and Wilco have all come extremely close, but none have been able to top Wayne Coyne and Co’s hour of pure magic.
The album opens with “Race For the Prize,” which roars with thunderous drums and captivates with swirling synthesizers. Steven Drozd’s work on this track is that of inspiration, making you want to play the drums much the same way Keith Moon could when he really let loose. It’s a performance quality that he maintains throughout the record, never once faltering in his position of backbone to the varied set of songs. This can be seen on the other album standouts, most notably “Waiting For a Superman” and “Buggin,” both which steam along with the same intensity as “Race For the Prize.”
The Soft Bulletin should also be recognized for its quieter moments, which mirror the more rambunctious ones in number. The seamless combination of “What Is the Light?” and the instrumental “The Observer” is pure brilliance, the soundtrack to a relaxed summer evening that you never want to end. Later entry “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” follows along the same trajectory, although this track may also be better utilized for a relaxed summer evening drug trip rather than merely for the evening itself.
The true brilliance of The Soft Bulletin comes in its masked simplicity. Although some of the musical arrangements may appear complex and intricate, they are all tied together with simple lyrical themes. Wayne Coyne, more often than not, seems to be singing for the listener rather than to the listener, allowing for a truly personal experience when spinning the record. “The Spiderbite Song” relates a true concern for a friend; “Waiting For a Superman” addresses the average man’s anxiety over the sheer weight of the world he lives in; “Buggin’” speaks of the sheer joy of love. All of Coyne’s lyrical messages remain remarkable undemanding, which provides a beautiful juxtaposition to the elaborate instrumental tracks.
The bottom line is that ten years removed, The Soft Bulletin is still an undeniably essential listen that belongs in every record collection.
– Ian Rice
To purchase The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin, please click here.