In preparation for my review of Embryonic, I went on a retroactive odyssey through the Lips entire back catalogue, starting with 1986’s Hear it Is and ending with 2009’s Embryonic, 23 years of a band finding their sound. From their humble beginnings as the acid taking punk rockers sounding like the Replacements covering Captain Beefheart to their later studio experimentations turning into pop gold, the Flaming Lips have and will forever be your weird older brothers favorite band. I embarked on this journey because from the very onset ofthe disorienting Embryonic I felt like I had no grounding whatsoever on a musical past of the Flaming Lips. Up to this point I was really only familiar with their only two masterpieces The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots; I wondered, as the first squalor of feedback drenched guitar riff pierced my speakers, is this what their old stuff sounds like? I decided to investigate. I can assure you that Embryonic sounds NOTHING like anything they have ever done throughout their 12 albums.
Granted, Flaming Lips used to be a lot heavier, but heavy in that ubiquitous nineties tuneful way; sure they had their weird sonic freakouts but those were mostly throwaway tracks that were a conscious effort to dismantle to their overtly pop leanings. Do you think the Beatles actually listened to “Revolution #9” after they recorded it? I present to you “Hell’s Angels Cracker Factory” off of 1989’s Telepathic Surgery. It wasn’t until 1999’s The Soft Bulletin that Coyne and co. sutured their experimental studio sessions with their overt pop tunes that Wayne Coyne’s now famous line “I play the recording studio” actually had any justifiable merit.
So, I guess this brings us to 2009. Embryonic is a beast of an album. Spanning two discs and 70 minutes, this is an album that you don’t want to be cornered by. Recorded in a broken down mansion, Embryonic sounds much more live than any of their more recent albums, viscous, jagged guitar freakouts owe as much to 70’s krautrock as it does to 2000’s psychadelia in the vein of Espers and Wooden Shjips. In each composition you can actually hear the Flaming Lips playing together as a band. You can pin point the guitars, bass, drum, synthesizer…mellotron, something that was buried beneath layers of saccharine studio sheen in the past. This isn’t to say that Steve Drozd and Wayne Coyne, the bands leading experimentalists, are muzzled by a primitivist break down of the bands expansive set. On the contrary, Drozd and Coyne, attack their instruments with each composition like they were discovering guitars again.
The grimy, gritty and sinister kraut groove of the stunning opener “Convinced of the Hex” finds Coyne’s range reaching a robotic, monotone that bounces over a funked up bass line and start/stop guitar freak outs, a move that is repeated again in “See the Leaves”. Once content to float in giant balls over the audience and manipulate giant life like puppets, Coyne draws deep into himself flaunting his insecurities and fatalism like the early 00’s never happened. The slow plod through a terrifyingly expansive territory with one dark rumination on mortality after another is broken up periodically by moments of pure, unabashed genius. The MGMT assisted “Worm Mountain” is as bombastic and frighteningly huge as anything the Lips have ever composed with Scurlock and Drozd’s manic percussion lapping over each other in frenzied waves. “Gemini Syringes” features a distant electronic soundscape filled with buzzing oscillators, tone generators and mathematician Dr. Thorsten Wormann’s disembodied voice floating in and out like a ghost. “Sagitarius Silver Annoucnement” is a clear nod to Joy Division’s own vision of grandiose darkness. The brooding, effects laden “Powerless” takes center stage on the album with a brooding minimalist guitar line, and a line “No one is ever really powerless” that may be the most hopeful statement on an album that turns “Do You Realize” fatalism-as-celebration completely on its ear.
Embroynic does not sound like a band at the tail end of their career. This album sounds like a mid-career stylistic 180 after a potentially horrendous bout with drug abuse and subsequent resurrection after a Syd Barret like seclusion. That was, like, so 10 years ago for the Flaming Lips. What makes this album so exciting and so jaw droppingly amazing is that this is the Flaming Lips through and through, the Flaming Lips that always teetered on the brink between madness and brilliance, battling addictions and agoraphobia while penning Oklahoma’s official rock and roll song. After all the fog machine cloud lifts and after the janitor sweeps up all confetti from the stadium floor, this is all that remains of the Flaming Lips, a fragile group of misfits firing a confetti cannon of their mortal fears straight into the stratosphere and then turning the cannon on themselves. Square in the chest.