The Flaming Lips Bring the Noise

Basic RGBEvery time I listen to a new Flaming Lips album, I question if I really enjoy listening to vacuum cleaners faxing each other.

Considering the Flaming Lips never sound like they are in, or of, the real world, there are times on their new album when the “music” sounds like alarms going off and welders working in machine shops.

The oscillating fans drop their front cages and fall crashing down to grind their blades into the carpet when singer and Flaming Lips mastermind Wayne Coyne starts singing “ooooh… aaahhhh….” I’m not sure I heard any lyrics. These aren’t so much songs as they are fleeting droning dreams, or perhaps nightmares given the album title of The Terror.

None of this is surprising, given the Flaming Lips history of at-times brilliant albums that are also sometimes too weird for their own good. These Lips have always moved faster than our brains. So I was giving The Terror another listen… and at one point wondered “is this still the intro?” and so I clicked over to check and I was 24 minutes in.

At another point it sounded like a woman’s voice was coming out of the ceiling.

Known for elaborate and extravagant live shows filled with over-the-top weirdness and multi-sensory overload, the Flaming Lips are also famous for experimental studio albums that, while mostly hailed by music critics as brilliant, are most often quite weird to the point that the main boundary they seem to push is “listenability.”

I realize that listenability is not really a word, but if they can make music out of doorbells and microwaves then I can have a little leeway with the English language.

The “problem,” and it’s a small problem… well, it’s not even a problem, seeing as it’s only rock’n’roll and I like the Flaming Lips and I applaud their creative artistic approach to the recording process. I’m not sure the box they think outside of was ever a square. It’s like they’re attempting to utilizing music as a means to invent new shapes and colors. It’s often said that there are only so many notes, and there’s nothing new under the sun, but most Flaming Lips albums could be aptly titled Reinventing the Wheel, or Songs In The Key of H. The people who dismissed Radiohead albums as “just a bunch of beeps and blips” probably didn’t realize they were actually listening to the Flaming Lips.

Anyway, the problem comes with listenability. When do you listen to this… stuff? It’s not party music, or background dinner music. It’s not running or workout music, and probably not recommended as driving music unless you want to constantly think people are honking at you or worry that your car might be blasting steam out of blown gaskets. It’s certainly heady music, best served though headphones while you walk through industrial neighborhoods pretending you’re in a spy movie hunting (or running away from) cyborgs at the end (or beginning) of modern civilization…

OH WAIT I THINK I JUST HEARD A RIDE CYMBAL!

The beats are made of static. Everything is distorted, the chords and musical notes are often so blurred and mushy you’re not sure if they originally came from a guitar or keyboard. It sounds like the soundtrack to a documentary about how film directors portray what “being on drugs” looks like. I don’t think I’ve ever done drugs that sound quite like this… and at many points it sounds like a dentist using a synthesized guitar drill to fix that pesky transistor radio in your teeth that keeps malfunctioning. Other times it sounds like the floating haze of all the Novocain necessary to numb the pain of such drilling.

Oh, but fear not The Terror. It’s not all noise. There are times amidst the machinery and endless loops of echo chambers when bright harmonious choirs bring sweet serenades alongside the vibrato of muffled organs changing chords. It’s like overhearing a funeral from inside the casket as you float up to heaven… if you were buried between a construction site and that warehouse loft where bands practice. But then you hear the monotony of a steam iron pressing on and off and maybe some monks using drum machines as a new form of meditation and you realize you’re not dead, you were just hypnotized, and now you can hear the loudspeaker announcements at the hospital and you hope all this whooshing and buzzing stuff making all this sound is actually helping you stay alive and to feel better.

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