The Flaming Lips - Embryonic

"Fearless Freaks indeed."
The Flaming Lips - Embryonic
More widely of late known as that band with the crazy stage show, inflatable globe, Teletubbies and all, The Flaming Lips have been busy in the lab and have returned with an altogether more intriguing studio album, ‘Embryonic’.

Of course, for those coming late to the party, experimental is what The Flaming Lips do - 1997’s ‘Zaireeka’ album came on four discs to be played on four stereo systems simultaneously, nevermind the eight years in the making 'Christmas On Mars' film. So now, Wayne Coyne and his outlandish Flaming Lips have unveiled their first double album, the afore-mentioned ‘Embryonic’.

Traditionally the format where serious rock bands spread their wings - see The Beatles’ ‘White Album’ or Dylan’s ‘Blonde On Blonde’ - head Lip Wayne Coyne states that they sometimes “would have made a better single album if only the artist would have focused themselves, edited themselves, and got down to work and trimmed the fat”. He even goes on to agree that ‘Embryonic’ may indeed be guilty of just that adding, “Either way it’s too late… the damage has been done”.

‘Embryonic’ is all about the band’s more impulsive, spontaneous side, common sense be damned. Maybe their recent mainstream success - their songs have even appeared on television adverts in the US - has fueled a need to cut loose, and ‘Embryonic’ is certainly a return to their leftfield roots. Recent fans may be sorely tested by the developments herein. Equally, any self respecting music fan will be more than prepared for the going-ons (think a post rock ‘Bitches Brew’).

All this talk of excess and experimentation might lead you to assume I’m setting you up for bad news of a self-indulgent mess of an album, and while there certainly are some non-essential tracks here, there is a wealth of killer material, however obtusely the Lips choose to deliver it.

Recording on equipment set up in drummer/multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd’s vacant house clearly gave the band time to play, with those sessions informing the mood of the album as a whole, a group of arty, very talented, friends jamming in someone’s front room.

‘Convinced Of The Hex’ kicks things off in fine style, its ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ drums startling the listener to attention. Edited down from a ten-minute jam, it sets a suitable mood for things to come, a loped bass-heavy groove and electronic squalls. Already a highlight from the digital EP is ‘Silver Trembling Hands’, one of the more cohesive offerings here alongside ‘See The Leaves’, ‘Worm Mountains’ and album closer ‘Watching The Planets’.

There is a surplus of material with excess minutes spent on song fragments and periods of noodling, ‘Powerless’ being the chief culprit. Coyne’s words come back to haunt him in these, thankfully few, moments.

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O appears as a guest ‘vocalist’ on three tracks, ‘Gemini Syringes’, ‘Watching The Planets’ and ‘I Can Be A Frog’, providing the requisite animal noises in accompaniment to the main lyrics’ roll call of furry friends. Notable as an example of the band’s sense of fun and childlike approach to creativity, the unique element to their ambitious, high concept, bizarrely titled material rescues and elevates the band from po-faced prog hell.

The gossamer ballads ‘IF’ and ‘The Impulse’ are welcome havens from the weirdness, while AWOL - or at least neglected - is their knack for effortless pop nuggets as heard on tracks like the now classic ‘Do You Realize’ or ‘Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Pt 1’. Clearly those kind of songs require more spit and polish than the ‘Embryonic’ sessions manifesto allowed. A return to their earlier head music roots is definitely apparent, and not just in that cover art.

I’ve always seen The Flaming Lips as a band above criticism. Whatever they involve themselves in, you can’t fault their motives or the sheer joie de vivre with which they operate. ‘Embryonic’ doesn’t change that opinion of them and further scores points for the head-strong manner with which they have assembled, driven and released this double album.

So, yeah, being facetious, it’d be better as a single album, maybe their best album yet, but that would miss the point of who The Flaming Lips are. A group of friends who’ve been a band for a little over twenty-five years. A quarter century years into their career, those by whom we measure longevity in rock, The Rolling Stones, released the career nadir ‘Dirty Work’ album. Says it all really.

Always the outsiders, even as they headlined festivals and topped charts, The Flaming Lips have returned with a truly great piece of work, flawed though it may be. Fearless Freaks indeed.

8/10

Words by Nick Annan


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