Robot fighters, fearless freaks, Martians who celebrate Christmas—The Flaming Lips have gone through a series of thematic metamorphoses in the past decade. Yet while Wayne Coyne, Michael Ivins and Steven Drozd were building interplanetary sets and caking on the alien makeup, their music found them embracing pop, albeit characteristically bizarre pop, above all else. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots remains one of the band’s most accessible outings, as well as one of the best, and in its aftermath the Lips took to covering the likes of The White Stripes and Kylie Minogue. Some four years later, they toned down the synthesizers and returned to a more familiar psych-rock sound on the decidedly less cohesive At War With The Mystics, which was slightly weirder, but still packed with singles. “Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” even made it onto a salad dressing commercial.
On Embryonic, the Lips’ 12th album, pop is clearly not the band’s objective. Where Coyne & Co. lyrically and visually pursued space-age themes over the past ten years, this is the album that finally sounds like something from outer space. Chaotic and beautiful, it’s an epic and dense work of atmosphere and texture. Hooks may be in shorter supply here, but what the album may sacrifice in immediacy it more than makes up for with its stunning compositions and heady layers. There are gauzy and serene effects one moment, explosions the next, and ultimately very little in the way of predictability.
Turning away from accessible pop structures isn’t the only dramatic shift that The Flaming Lips have undergone with Embryonic, however. Whereas basically all of the band’s albums since Zaireeka have been broad studio conceits, enormous in sound and concept, effects and overdubs, Embryonic sounds like four guys playing their massive and eerie psychedelic rock music together, as a band. You’d have to reach back pretty far in the band’s catalog to find something that similarly reproduces the intensity of a live show, likely back to 1995 with Clouds Taste Metallic, though this, stylistically, isn’t similar to that album at all. Opener “Convinced of the Hex” squawks and chirps like robots gone haywire, as Coyne chants lines like “she submits as she dominates” over a hypnotic bassline and dazzling Rhodes piano. It’s an intriguing and unexpected opener, mechanically but chaotically setting the course for the rest of the album’s manic journey, and it only gets stranger and more incredible from there.
“The Sparrow Looks Up At the Machine” continues the preceding track’s mixture of Can and Bitches Brew, but with more playful drum patterns and more fuzz, ultimately doing “Hex” one better by turning up the intensity. “Evil” temporarily provides reprieve from the onslaught of drums and distortion, instead combining spacey analog synth patterns with a more characteristic rush of strings and Coyne’s lament, “I wish I could go back in time.” Once those five minutes of cosmic ballad are up, the band throws all caution to the wind and detonates the furious jam session of “Aquarius Sabotage,” with harp strings launching through the melody like comets through an asteroid belt. Meanwhile, “See the Leaves” presents a satisfyingly raw and crunchy stomp, and “If,” in true celebratory, bleak fashion, gently presents the unsettling statement, “people are evil, it’s true.”
As distant, menacing and cold as much of Embryonic is, it does find the band working with a handful of notable guest musicians. Chief among them is the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O who provides some silly animal noises on “I Can Be A Frog,” which even elicits a laugh from Coyne in one particularly warm and endearingly imperfect moment. Karen also guests on the monolithic closer “Watching the Planets,” which reprises the melody of “Frog” into something bigger, more powerful and just plain awesome. And MGMT lend backup to bass-heavy stoner stomp “Worm Mountain.”
A few more familiar names on the marquee aside, Embryonic is its best when the band combines their boldest and most out-there visions with their strongest melodies, and that’s a pretty frequent occurrence here. “The Ego’s Last Stand” shivers and throbs, slowly building to an immense payoff. “The Impulse” is oddly serene, though still slightly unsettling. But above all, it’s beautiful. And “Silver Trembling Hands,” the best single track here, is a triumph of intense rhythms and a subtly infectious chorus, not to mention countless gorgeous details.
In many ways, Embryonic shares a lot in common with The Flaming Lips’ early material. It’s the sound of an odd, experimental and brave psychedelic rock band dodging convention while giving a nod toward their ’60s and ’70s influences. Yet the band takes that idea so much farther on this album, diving deeper into abrasive textures and twisted melodies. It’s a new peak for the band, nearly the polar opposite of their last truly mind-blowing album, The Soft Bulletin. And like that album, Embryonic closes a decade by expanding the possibilities of where the next one will lead us.
Can – Tago Mago
Boredoms – Vision Creation Newsun
Silver Apples – Silver Apples
Video: “I Can Be a Frog”