Apr 16, 2013

Music Review: "The Terror" by The Flaming Lips

By Ian Cory

On The Flaming Lip’s widely acclaimed album The Soft Bulletin, Wayne Coyne opened one tune with the line: “And though they were sad/they rescued everyone/they lifted up the sun”. It’s a lyric that sums up a good deal of The Flaming Lips worldview and aesthetic, a joyful and slightly messianic explosion of light and color, with an undercurrent of melancholy and loss. The sun returns on their latest album, The Terror, but under very different circumstances. Now the color has been sucked out, and the sadness that was only implied is pushed to the forefront. Solar imagery is used throughout the album, but instead of representing hope, it now symbolizes the constant passage of time and the inevitability of death. For all of those worried that the last three years of slightly inane experimentation had robbed The Flaming Lips of their ability to make real artistic statements, The Terror is a godsend; proof that the band still has plenty of things to say, and has no scruples about alienating their listeners in order to say them.

This isn’t the first time The Flaming Lips have made their dark side more explicit, in fact if anything The Terror can be seen as a logical progression from 2009’s Embryonic. That record was a long and occasionally overwhelming exploration of the nature of evil. It mostly shied away from straightforward melodies in favor of rambling noisy jams, an approach that the band takes to a new level on The Terror. Instead of crafting songs from harsh ambience, they instead let the music slide in and out of it. Listening to this album often feels like swimming through the ocean while surrounded by fog, only occasionally finding solid ground before it recedes back into the water. There’s a constant pulse sliding in and out of each of these seamlessly arranged songs, often constructed out of a single beating frequency, giving the album very little forward momentum. The only truly propulsive moment happens early, on the album’s starting track, but even these raw and aggressive drums gradually fade away, only returning at the very ending of the record. In between these bookends, the album is marked by a sense of gradual decay. Guitars are whittled down into sharp daggers, poking holes through the mist of buzzing synths and ghostly reverb. Coyne’s voice, drained of its former childlike wonder, takes on a more fragile quality; that is when it isn’t buried under layers of effects. Coyne sounds equal parts crushed under the weight of his own impending demise and apathetic at the lack of hope that he finds around him.

Flaming Lips albums have a tendency to start with a few strong songs and then slowly devolve into a mush of sonic experiments. The Terror smartly uses this trend to its advantage and also finds interesting paths around the problem. After the opening trio of songs, all very tuneful and melodically engaging, the band launches into “You Lust”, a 13 minute long dirge who's dedication to a single repeating keyboard line is almost Swans-esque. Although somewhat of a slog to get through, “You Lust” serves as an excellent dividing line for the two halves of the album, and makes the relative quickness of the remaining tracks that much more engaging in contrast. While it would be foolish to attempt a blow by blow description of each song’s variety of sonic quirks, there are plenty of highlights on the album’s back half, like the sudden explosion of distorted guitars on “The Terror”, or the Tim Hecker style phasing on “Turning Violent”. All of this serves as a slow build to “Always There In Our Hearts”, the album’s final track and thesis statement. Over a throbbing bassline that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Nolan film, Coyne and his army of ghostly backing vocals list the contents of the human soul. Equal parts love, pain, fear, and evil, Coyne eventually concludes that the underlying factor is “something pure we can’t control” before a flurry of drums brings the song to a climactic close.

As large green rage beast and critic extraordinaire Film Crit Hulk would say “THE ENDING IS THE CONCEIT”, and the fact that The Terror abides so well to this rule speaks to its cinematic and conceptual power. The human experience as presented by The Flaming Lips is a harsh one, filled with loss and inevitable agony, but despite this, we are still capable of love and hope. Ultimately this conclusion isn’t too far from the one they’ve reached on past albums, but this album goes a step further by embedding this thematic point into the very fabric of the album’s sound. Don’t let the gummy skull albums or hamster balls fool you; The Flaming Lips are truly artists, and we’re all lucky to have them making such vital work so late into their career. “If you ever really see a sunset/you will see how long it takes to die,” Coyne sings. May The Flaming Lips’ sun hang long in the sky.

Grade: A-

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