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. In reality, the album’s emphasis on wandering atmospheres is not that far from the fringes that Miles Davis took us to on his 1970 double LP masterpiece, Bitches Brew. Back then, people were no doubt throwing up their arms in disgust that the godfather of cool jazz hadn’t given them a proper follow up to Kind of Blue.
While Embryonic shares with Brew many of the spontaneous bursts of chaos that made that album such a jarring listen, you can rest assured that this beautiful mess was – thanks to Coyne and his admitted control issues – a very calculated affair. Eighteen tracks and seventy minutes of squealing synths, thunderous drumming, seismic bass lines, and imitated animal noises (thank you, Karen O) are the only things you’re likely to hear if you didn’t heed the band’s pre-release comments, but for those who know what they’re getting into, this is a deliciously satisfying trip that has the rare distinction of being as abrasive as it is hypnotic.
Opener “Convinced of the Hex” veers more towards the former, as grating keyboards and piercing distortion eventually give way to a looping bass line and drums that, characteristic of producer Dave Fridmann, are not the slightest bit concerned with compression. Delivered in minor second intervals that enhance the song’s paranoid state, Coyne sings, “She submits as she dominates” – expressing the kind of duality that is an inherent part of this entire record. But unlike most of the album’s cuts, this one has something of a discernible structure, with Coyne chanting, “That’s the difference between us,” at every chorus. Still, with so much reverb on the vocals and so little harmonic motion (the song ebbs and flows between just two chords), it’s easy to lose yourself in the layers of noise. Some occasional wails and cacophonic synths make sure you’re not completely lulled off to sleep, however.
“The Sparrow Looks Up at the Machine” and “See the Leaves” both follow similar trajectories, where Bonham-style drumming from Kliph Scurlock and hook-happy bass ostinatos from Michael Ivins keep the grooves intact while Coyne relies on mantras like “See the sun / it’s trying again” (“See the Leaves”) that are sung in a quavering falsetto. On the druggy yet cathartic closer “Watching the Planets,” threats such as, “Yes, yes, yes / killing the ego tonight,” make it sound like the band is perfectly content to do its little psychedelic dance right up until Armageddon arrives.
The album’s finest cuts are those that indeed feel embryonic: musical skeletons that have yet to fully grow and develop. After the one-two punch of “Convinced of the Hex” and “The Sparrow Looks Up at the Machine,” the band loosens up for “Evil,” a lengthy cut of sulking strings and droning synths that plods along without care.
Another such example is the seven-minute “Powerless,” an expanse of lethargy that prioritizes mood and texture over melody and lyrical substance. Following the aural assault of a track like “Aquarius Sabotage,” it’s a perfectly deranged and sullen way to close out the record’s first half. The track’s secret weapon, like many songs of the Lips’ past three studio recordings, is the circular bass line generated by Ivins. “Sagittarius Silver Announcement” – closer to record’s end – shares many of the same qualities with the added bonus of sun soaked Beach Boy harmonies and promises from Coyne that, “We can be like they are / we can be free.”
The Flaming Lips were being very honest on this one, and though they may not be outwardly religious, it seems like the truth did indeed set them free.