on 16 October 2009
I think there must have been a turning point for the Flaming Lips sometime in early 2008. Perhaps it was when they realised they'd just recorded a song for the romcom `Good Luck Chuck'. This is a band that used to fill an upturned cymbal with lighter fluid and play the drums on fire, who have performed gigs on car stereos in a car park, and released an album on four disks that had to be played simultaneously. What on earth were they doing on the Spiderman 3 soundtrack?
`Embryonic' swiftly puts things right, throwing a large spanner in the works of their mainstream appeal. From the first minutes, it's clear that their superstar status is no obstacle to making awkward music again. `Convinced of the Hex' begins in sharp stabs of electric guitar, before sloping off into a deep, rattling chug. It's a thousand miles from the layered, crisp sounds of the most recent Flaming Lips albums.
Hot on its heels comes the buzzing, crunching `The Sparrow looks up at the Machine'. Melodically, it could sit alongside any of the quieter moments on `Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots', but the production here is muddy, clunky, rough around the edges. As if to emphasize their creative freedom, yelps, screams, hoots and barking noises punctuate the gaps between the lyrics.
At this point, fans who picked up on the Lips post-Yoshimi may well be turning off, but the album has its moments, its flashes of tenderness and humour. `Aquarius Sabotage' offers a little glimpse of beauty, `Gemini Syringes' is a telephoned in astrophysics lesson over primitive bass and twinkling keyboards. There's always more going on than you first think, if you can bring yourself to take a second listen.
Overall however, `Embryonic' is a bit of a cacophony. `Powerless' features a three minute guitar solo that goes nowhere. The orchestral moments that suddenly burst out of the static and crashing of `Scorpio Sword' are a genuine surprise, but the track is still two minutes of noise. Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs appears on `I Can be a Frog', only to make animal noises and laugh. There's nothing here that could even be a single, let alone a hit. It's long and shambolic, but it's also fun and exhilarating. Take it or leave it, it's an album you have to surrender yourself to.
Wayne Coyne claims they had given themselves the `freedom to fail' on this album, and that's perhaps a defining phrase. Whether it fails or not is up to you, but I think not. I loved the last three Lips albums, so part of me wishes they'd followed them up with more of the same. Another part of me knows that I'd have been a little disappointed if they'd done anything so predictable.
The Flaming Lips have always had an imagination bigger than their music and even their medium, as their stage shows and films testify. It may be commercially cavalier, but in the broader perspective of their unusual career, `Embryonic' makes complete sense.
Murder, Torture, Cancer. There are worse words in the human lexicon than "Free Form Jam". To those who joined The Flaming Lips ship with the wonderful phase that was 1999's "Soft Bulletin" to 2006's "At War With The Mystics", "Embryonic" will be, at best, a significant challenge.
Whereas those records were sumptious, Spector-esque visions, halfway between Pink Floyd's early years and a philosophical Ronettes, "Embryonic" is something else completely. 70 minutes, 18 tracks of largely improvised music, the sound of four men in a room making a racket. Drums punctuate and dominate the recording for the first time in 12 years, now that Kliph Scurlock is a full time and official member of The F'Lips, and the songs roll on rhythms and drum breaks with adeptness of the Zeppelin's finest hours, Steve makes a racket by guitar and strings, fuzzy bass that reminds me of The Stooges throbs and moans, and over the top of all this, Wayne Coyne is no longer the band leader, extracting melody and vision to dominate the musical palette, but a band member : the voice used as another instrument : "Worm Mountain" is an undulating wave - formless, and uncertain. As indeed is most of this failed experiment.
There's little in the way of memorable material here - "I Can Be A Frog" is the nearest thing to a hit, and that would've occupied a space reserved for a weird out near the end of any other recent album. "Silver Trembling Hands" is a largely focused freakzoid experiment that is the nearest living relative to an actual song. But aside from that, if you are drawn to the Flaming Lips melodic song-writing skills, you will be shortly served on this.
I can imagine Warner Brothers recieving this and wondering aloud ... "What's THIS For?" at the end of the first listen. The deft dynamics, memorable choruses, and fabulous songs of the last decade have been abandoned in favour of a more brutal way of working : instrumental fractions are extended until they topple, words and choruses are dispensed with, and the whole thing is an incoherent mess.
Reminiscent of listening to some - but not all - of 1997's bonkers 4CD box set "Zaireeka" at once, "Embryonic" was undoubtedly great fun to make, and an exciting display of a band working together as a unit for the sake of music, but, and perhaps most crucially of all, it does not work successfully as a record.
In many ways, it is their first retrogressive step, as The F'Lips return to the well that they abandoned in 1995, trying to recapture the kind of punk rock acid super semi-cosmic jam that saw them spend their first fifteen years in obscurity. It may very well send them back there.
In addition, the fact that several songs are bonus tracks only available if you buy low grade MP3's from a certain well known retail website, a website that the band themselves will probably only see fractions of pennies in royalties from, makes me wonder what exactly the point is. Especially as there is space on the double CD format for these songs. Own Goal, Flips!
on 13 October 2009
Not at all, its just we have to catch up with them. This comes with repetitive listening. If you liked Zaireeka you will love this. Within the albums 70 minutes the Flaming Lips have created a new genre, it sounds retro, it sounds futuristic it has touching introspective musings it has balls out rockers. A lot has been made of the Jam aspect to the songs but don't get the wrong idea its not a lot of musicians twiddling, its sharp, its loud, its fun - almost like a soundtrack to a film which joins and highlights the more structured songs.
This is the Flaming lips doing what they do best, music experimentation which can still push the right emotional buttons.
on 22 October 2009
Fans more accustomed to the cleaner sweeping sounds of The Flaming Lips' three previous albums might find this album hard to digest. It's raw, sprawling and all over the place. But while Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi were excellent albums, their last effort At War with the Mystics, while being good, felt a bit stale and as if the band were retreading their steps. Embryonic represents a new direction for the Lips.
The balls-to-the-wall fantastic opener Convinced Of The Hex set the listener in the right mood, setting up a sonic landscape that is overall dirtier and more chaotic than The Flaming Lips have been in years. For fans of their earlier albums it is like their old style has been fused with their recent music.
It might be different, but this is still undeniably and recognisably The Flaming Lips, Wayne's voice hovering somewhere out in space, strange use of guitars and synthesisers. This is not just a rocked out fuzz-fest, though, but also contemplative and strangely moving, such as the song Evil. In many ways, it's the most personal The Flaming Lips ever got.
Although being a big fan, I was concerned about and somewhat uninterested in their new album, as I felt they were starting to become complacent and stale, but to my great surprise, they reinvented themselves, while still being true to their style and uniqueness. The album is not, as someone else argued, experimentation, but rather rethreading their various styles and branching out into areas they hadn't already explored.
The sound might be a bit obtrusive at times, but the songs do become stronger with repeated listening, and some particular tracks are quite addictive. The variation of tracks also makes the album stronger as a whole; some songs are short bursts of violent sound, some short non-vocal pieces and longer more epic songs.
Overall, I feel that Embryonic is truly a return to form for The Flaming Lips, they really haven't made this good music since 2002, but it was worth the wait. Perhaps not all fans will like it, but I think the album and band will be appreciated for not simply trying to constantly remake The Soft Bulletin, but venture out into new unknown funky corners of space.
on 25 February 2010
I've no complaints with the music here, a return to the scuzzy, shambling psychedelia once typical of the Flaming Lips before the more conventionally melodic run of albums that began with 'Clouds taste metallic'. I loved 'Clouds...', 'The Soft Bulletin' and 'Yoshimi....', but found the 'At War With The Mystics' to be a bit limp and half-hearted in parts. By returning to the less commercial, freer music of their earlier albums the band seem reinvigorated, but they haven't lost their way with a good melody either, and this is a great fun album to listen to.
Or it would be if it wasn't for the horrible mastering, which somehow makes this album a chore to listen for more than a few songs at a time. I'm not talking about loudness or distortion here (I'm a big fan of both), I'm talking about the combination of overcompressed mastering and the digital waveform carrier (CD or mp3). Even with the sound turned down, this combination really hurts my ears. Of course this is a personal thing, and maybe I'm psycho-acoustically abnormal, but for me this is a real problem. To be clear about the kind of aural unpleasantness I'm talking about, the best analogy I can think of is the sound of a CD skipping on a pub jukebox turned up loud. Ouch.
Happily, there is a solution to this problem - buy the vinyl. Having compared the two formats, I'm glad to report that the vinyl edition sounds just fine. Why this should be I'm not entirely sure - presumably the vinyl is cut from the same digital master - but the effect is undeniable. Perhaps the physical limitations of the vinyl groove mean that the compression has to be turned down for a playable transfer? Anyway, I'd strongly recommend buying this on vinyl, which comes with a free CD anyway, so you can compare for yourself.
on 21 October 2009
it won't appeal to the singalong lips fan of Yoshimi, but anyone who's kept abridge of the Lips over their 25 years will realise change was a necessity. As they found success with their last 3 albums, it would've been easy to continue in that vein in ever decreasing circles, however they made their name as a band of risks and adventure and they'd become a very safe mainstream act through the last 3-4 years - Things had to change and boy they have!
More in common with 'Clouds', 'Zaireeka' and 'OMG, it's the..' than the latest 3 albums, this albums takes in many different sounds.
It's true that there's not much radio friendly fodder on here, but if treated like an old time album (i.e. listened to in it's entirety rather than random one songs on an ipod) it's an extremely staisfying listen with some great sonic touches, moments of tenderness and some proper rocking out freakout jams.
I was afraid another pop/rock mishmash of an album like At war might've killed off my love of the Lips, but Embryonic has brought them back to my bosom. A great record that makes me optimistic for the Lips future.
Maybe not for the Karaoke brigade, but anyone who has loved music for music's sake in the past will learn to love this and IMO it'll stick around with people a lot longer than At War or Yoshimi.
BTW, if you really want a Lips type album like Soft Bulletin or Yoshimi, check out Wayne's Nephew's band Stardeath and Whitedwarfs - They are more Flipsy circa Soft Bulletin than the Flaming Lips are.
You know that warm, fuzzy feeling you got from The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi, as though The Flaming Lips was taking you on their own private Magical Mystery Tour?
Yes, well, Embryonic isn't like that.
For me, At War With The Mystics was a bad album - inconsistent to the point of schizophrenia - but Embryonic locks you back into the grasp of a band that knows exactly where it's going, and that's far, far from the mainstream into a miasma of angry mechanical noise. It's as though the pink robots from the Yoshimi album won and now the listener is chained in the engine room of their spacecraft.
This is not to say that Wayne Coyne does not give us moments of trademark fortune-cookie wisdom in his plaintive vocals. "Evil" is a potent ballad, with a suggestion of strings amongst the synthetic noises, but the song has a sketch-like quality and the scribble of sound on it seem more important than the melody itself. There is no sense that this album was composed ... instead it appears to have been assembled from off-cuts. "If" - one of the poorer tracks, featuring Coyne rambling in a thin, exposed falsetto - reveals that The Flaming Lips (at this point in their career) need to pile on the ideas to distract from the fundamental musical weakness of the underlying material. That would be a problem if it were not for how successfully the album does distract from it.
Ultimately, the question arises whether all this is just interesting or actually good. Embryonic is a great-sounding, adventurous, gripping album and I think that it's one that will be the subject of passionate argument in coming years. Its long running length (70 mins) means that there is plenty here to explore and reassess, and despite what the more negative reviewers have said there is plenty of obvious "good stuff" here despite (or perhaps because of) the predominantly dark atmosphere. Very little of that running time is wasted in repetition. They really have that much to say.
I've got a feeling that this will become my favourite Lips album after Yoshimi. It's one of the purest expressions of what The Flaming Lips do well ... and that isn't really about making the listener feel comfortable.
on 4 January 2010
There isn't one Flaming Lips, there are about five! They don't stand still these guys, which, I suppose is how they've kept it interesting for over twenty five years. This album is another departure. Wayne Coyne's great cracked voice is still there, but this time in the service of some pretty extreme soundscapes. Conventional song structures are few and far between. If the more songy thing is what you want, get 'Clouds Taste Metallic', 'The Soft Bulletin', or 'Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots'. Actually, get all four albums, you probably need them.
on 25 November 2009
this really is a great album you need to give it time as it can be a difficult
experience at 1st - a couple of the tracks do sound like they are all just playing at once to test their eq levels - personally i just dont get trout mask replica or can its just not for me so the 'krautrock' influenced avant garde stuff on here leaves me with a bit of a headache - that apart there are 3 or 4 simply jaw droppingly brilliant tracks on here which no other band on earth is capable of producing.'Evil' 'If' Convinced of the Hex' 'Silver Trembling Hands'and the collossal 'Ego's last Stand' Its no Yoshimi or Bulletin thats for sure but when you achieve Godlike Genius its all downhill from there,the thing is... downhill for Coynes crew is still better than every other band out there.
I must say though that the production on this is dire - it sounds like a demo in parts
on 19 November 2009
Having become almost superstars, the new Flaming Lips album will probably turn off many people. Old fans, especially those (like me) who were introduced to the weird universe of the Lips through their most commercial album, Yoshimi...., will probably wonder what on earth is going on here. Also, it is probably too harsh for newbies, who will probably be turned off by its distinct lack of anything commercial.
But stick with it, and after a few listens the tunes and themes start to make themselves heard above the noise. I was also lucky enough to see the band live, and the songs they picked from Embryonic tended to make more sense in that setting. Although definitely no classic in the Soft Bulletin or Yoshimi... mode, this certainly is a better album than a first listen would suggest.