Before I begin writing this review, I have to give full disclosure and admit that I showed up late to The Flaming Lips musical masquerade party. I missed out on “She Don’t Use Jelly,” The Soft Bulletin, and everything else. For years, the band orbited around my auditory peripheral vision, mostly from friends telling me how much I would love them due to their obvious Syd Barrett/Pink Floyd undertones and Butthole Surfers sensabilities. It wasn’t until I finally gave them a chance with Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots that I realized my friends were right all along.
By 2009, The Lips had grown into a much more popular band than anyone could have envisioned in their earlier years. With the success of the song “Do You Realize,” the critical acclaim laid on them for The Soft Bulletin, and their mesmerizing, legendary live shows, they had become one of the few that could easily headline Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, July 4th on The Mall, Coachella, and your backyard BBQ. Their music appealed to a wide array of listeners, much like Janes Addiction’s did before them. Hippies, folkies, metalheads, and hipsters alike were all on The Flaming Lips bandwagon. They were a fun, psychedelic, experimental, punky-meets-jam band with catchy songs about death, and a singer who dances atop the audience inside of a see thru ball. What’s not to like?
So what did the band do at this point of their now well over 20-year career? They released Embryonic, perhaps their most inaccessible album since Zaireeka.
Upon my first listen to Embryonic, I had two initial thoughts: Wow, this album sounds really raw compared to some of their previously hyper-produced records, and, man, there are some long and challenging songs here. To say the album was easy to latch on to would be a lie, though I could sense it had the potential to be a “grower” (definition: an album that becomes more and more appealing after each listen). Some reviewers mentioned how the music sounded like the band sitting in their living room, jamming, and hitting the record button. To some degree, that seems to be correct. The first two tracks, “Convinced of the Hex” and “The Sparrow Looks Up At The Machine” (Lips song titles are always interesting, to say the least), pull off one of the best one-two opening-the-album musical punches in recent memory. The Bonham-esque sounding drums, the quirky guitar feedback, the spine-tingling synthesizers, and the freaked-out vocal stylings are classic Flaming Lips, but on this record, the band seems much looser and willing to let things fly without going back into the studio and Pro Tooling the hell out of the tracks. The songs sound rehearsed and planned while still maintaining an improvisational and lo-fi edge. It does sound like The Flaming Lips jamming in their living room…if that living room was in a space station…above Saturn.
And the jamming continues throughout the album: “Aquarius Sabotage” sounds like Sketches of Spain on a bad acid trip. “Evil” could be the child of Crosby, Stills, and Nash if they were married to Mogwai. Hypnotic, droning, listener-challenging structures have never been a real problem for The Flaming Lips, their songs always start in one place and, usually, end up in another. “See The Leaves” grooves along with a fantastic beat and repetitive, simple guitar track, until it finally breaks down into an eery vocal harmony and Rick Wright-circa-Atom Heart Mother organ sound. “Gemini Syringes” and “Powerless” sound like they could’ve been on any pre-Dark Side of the Moon Floyd album, and my personal favorite, “Silver Trembling Hands,” manages to both rock and scare you at the same time. It’s sequenced perfectly after a long stretch of dizzying and (almost) drumless songs; like comic relief in a heavy drama, except this is The Flaming Lips, so relief is a relative word.
If you wanted to turn someone on to The Flaming Lips who had never heard one note of their music, I am not sure Embryonic is the place to start. It requires a patience to absorb and a willingness to let the album develop it’s theme over time. Though there are certain tracks indicative of The Lips sound throughout, overall, it’s a challenging one to get into. That being said, two years after my initial listen, it’s my favorite Flaming Lips album. And it keeps growing on me.