Release Date: Oct 13, 2009
Record label: WEA/Reprise
Genre(s): Rock, Alternative, Experimental
Over its seven-year gestation, Christmas on Mars had come to represent everything wonderful and frustrating about the Flaming Lips. As much as we loved the idea of Wayne Coyne producing a sci-fi flick in his backyard with hardware-store materials, the Lips' musical production became less frequent-- and less consistent-- during its making. 2006's scattershot At War With the Mystics tried to cut down on the lightness of their two previous landmark albums but was largely overwhelmed by cloying singles ("The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song", "Free Radicals") that felt like little more than excuses to shoot off their confetti cannons.
Still fearless, still freaks.
Christmas on Mars might be the Flaming Lips' bona fide sci-fi epic, but Embryonic is the musical equivalent of the final scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey: transformative chaos that results in a new start. From The Soft Bulletin onward, the Lips seemed focused on tidying the loose ends of their earlier work, almost to the point of constraining themselves. Their wilder side is unleashed on Embryonic's 18 tracks, and the band sounds more off-the-cuff than it has in years -- some tracks are barely longer than snippets, others are rangy epics, and it all holds together so organically that listeners might wonder just how much these songs were edited.
Ten years ago The Flaming Lips put a cap on the 90’s with The Soft Bulletin. The raw power of the fearless freaks was finally harnessed, making the album a symphonic shot to the head and the heart. The Lips spent most of the 00’s following that guideline. While crafting more precise, fully formed, melodic songs the band became more prominent and respected than anyone would’ve imagined from a group that began as a bunch of noise-making weirdos.
On their follow-up to 2006's lukewarm At War With The Mystics, Wayne Coyne and co. offer a longer, more cogent listen that draws on darker influences and exudes a visceral, live-band feel. A clear progression from their late 90s/early 2000s psych-pop breakthrough discs, the album makes up in brooding what it lacks in immediacy. [rssbreak] And there's still a heavy dose of the weird: it's a double album delivered on a single disc, Karen O makes animal noises over the phone on I Can Be A Frog, and the deluxe edition comes in a furry package.
Embryonic, as you probably know from Wayne Coyne’s blanketing press-relations approach, is a double album, which means it’s damn long. Seventy minutes to be exact, though that’s more than short enough to fit on only one disc. That could be said about every double album of all time, though, and that’s beside the point. We’re here for the Flaming Lips, the band with perhaps the longest leash in major-label history.
After spending the ’90s proselytizing on the uses of Vaseline (”She Don’t Use Jelly”) and the 2000s ? reinventing themselves as kindly freak-folk father figures (”Do You Realize??”), the graying Oklahomans have mutated once again. Their 12th album is a heady stew of fuzzed-out satellite trans-?missions (”Gemini Syringes”), jazzy spaz-outs (”Aquarius Sabotage”), and enthusiastic animal noises courtesy ? of Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer Karen O (”I Can Be a Frog”). Equal parts overwhelming and intoxicating, Embryonic is a trip worth taking.
Over the past decade, the Flaming Lips have steadily built their following to the point that they now exist both in the underground and on the fringe of the mainstream. They’ve achieved this rather remarkable feat by releasing a trio of albums that adhere to a similar blueprint: add one part sentimental ballads, one part bombastic rockers, and one part instrumental freakouts, and you’ve got a latter-day Flaming Lips LP. It’s all become a bit formulaic, yes, but a winning recipe to be sure.
It's hard to believe it's been 10 years since The Flaming Lips released their genre-busting masterpiece The Soft Bulletin. That album changed the game for experimental independent musicians and helped pave the way for indie rock to come. These days The Flaming Lips are elder statesman in a much younger person's scene, but they continue to push boundaries with the best of them.
While it would be wrong to suggest The Flaming Lips have fallen out of favour over the last decade (the ever avuncular Wayne Coyne has precious few challengers for his 'most beloved man in indie' crown), it's perhaps true that familiarity has led to the first creeping signs of contempt. The Soft Bulletin had made them the most acclaimed band on the planet, but by the end of the At War With The Mystics tour people seemed more familiar with the Lips' insane arsenal of live gimmicks than the record itself. Given that they effectively toured with the same show up until this year's ATP NY, that's perhaps not really a surprise but still...
Ihave a dream. It's that one day a glorious new dawn breaks and musicians of all races, creeds and colours will unite in the realisation that making an album of "freak-out rock jams" is, generally, not a terribly good idea. Those musicians, however, are not Oklahoma's lovable odd-bods Flaming Lips and that album is emphatically not Embryonic. "We did, on all levels, completely lose our way," frontman Wayne Coyne admits in the blurb accompanying their 12th record.
Has the music industry ever seemed madder than it did following Nirvana's rise to stardom? Wrongfooted by Nevermind's success, US major labels began a goldrush, desperately signing anything "alternative", regardless of how uncommercial it might be. They signed Tad: after all, who can't see the crossover potential of a 22-stone former butcher with an album called God's Balls? They fought over Kurt Cobain-endorsed singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston, despite his problems with mental illness. And they signed frazzled Oklahoma psychedelicists the Flaming Lips.
"There's no way back, it's complete devastation," warns Wayne Coyne on "The Ego's Last Stand," opening the second act of epic Embryonic in the throes of a maddening bassline that pounds from the deepest, darkest recesses of a repressed psyche. After a decade whirling in the ecstatic thrall of symphonic anthems and hallucinated spectacle, Embryonic washes away the euphoria commenced with 1999's The Soft Bulletin to present Lips 3.0. While the experimental Okies have always wavered in the searching rift of manic-depression, never have they so fully embraced the brutally incapacitating side of the psychological equation as on their 12th studio LP.
In the months preceding the release of the Flaming Lips’ new album, Embryonic, frontman Wayne Coyne provided more than enough justification and subsequent warning that we were not going to have another sweetly glistening electro-pop record on our hands, à la 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots or 2006’s At War with the Mystics. Indicating that Embryonic’s double album format provided the means necessary to “sprawl a little bit” and indulge in some “free-for-all” antics, it should be of little surprise that the next “Do You Realize” is nowhere to found on this LP. Yet for a band that has proudly and deliberately flown its freak flag since its 1983 inception – and from whom we have grown to expect liberal amounts of aberration – a surprising number of haters have come forward to denounce the meandering pace and unsettling soundscapes of Embryonic.