The Flaming Lips - The Terror
As a forecast for this record, preceding single ‘Sun Blows Up Today’ was both completely contradictory and strikingly pertinent. The Terror contains next-to-none of the intoxicatingly giddy (and apparently marketable) energy of that track, a product befitting the kind of band who would record with Ke$ha, have their greatest chart success with ‘The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song’, and are perhaps more renowned, amongst the uninitiated, for man-size hamster ball crowd-surfs at their concerts. Instead though, The Flaming Lips' latest LP is experienced like the aftermath of the apocalyptic event that gave that red-herring a name, a 55-minute document of trauma.
Tracks segue together like Dalí clocks melting, the vocals interpose between rising above, weaving through, and falling into, the mix: whether they’re delivered as shamanic chants or in a falsetto intermittently sweet and strained. At points, any semblance of melody is simply given a royal seeing to by drone, feedback, and synthesised throbs, which range in volume and intensity like a seismograph registering earthquake tremors. Indeed, at their most insistent and powerful (I’m particularly thinking upon ‘Turning Violent’ here), it feels like the palpitations of the planet’s collective heartbeat.
The Flaming Lips have always engaged in studio experimentation and sonic manipulation, so the dissonance and syncopation present on The Terror are not necessarily surprising, but it is nonetheless rattling for the sheer darkness, scale and omnipresence with which it is employed.
Nowhere is this clear than on the thematic heart of the record, the epic ‘You Lust’. Whilst the first 15 minutes feel as though no time at all has passed, this track encompasses the preceding length entirely within itself, as it proceeds to squarely match the band’s description of it as “disturbing and unrewarding”. The former is epitomised particularly by Wayne Coyne’s venomous, hissed delivery of “Lust to succeed” – perhaps the closest The Terror comes to a chorus - and the discomforting drawn out and unfulfilled sonic tension they capture, seems the ultimate expression of the hopelessness that seems to have been taken into the studio
Between a prolific release schedule, marijuana jelly, 24-hour long songs and a record-breaking 8 concerts in the same time-span, a preference for ‘sonics rather than songs’ might be entirely understandable, and it goes some way to elucidating a hint of the emotional landscape that lies behind the record.
Yet, there is nonetheless a beauty here, which elsewhere might well have been an exhausted quantity. There’s the isolated moments amidst the bleak and blaring: the sparse elegance to the weary ‘Be Free, A Way’, and the gradual emergence ‘Try to Explain’ has - like a time-lapse of a flower coming into bloom, bursting here with enveloping vocals and the rarest flourish of strings. But it is through the overall fulfilment of the trajectory of the album as an album, that the most satisfying outcome is reached. Because, as much as Coyne’s mad, circumlocutory press release appears to suggest otherwise, this is a band that definitely appears to know what it is doing when it comes to their art.
The oppressive atmosphere is part of a process here, (perhaps even a narrative?), of the working through of deep-set torment and international dystopia – the record seems to speak to both. “The wonderful freedom of no chord changes” Steven Drozd claims to have felt in the composition and recording of the record, heightens the impact of the full release of furious power which characterises the end of the record. When the drums kick in on the almost-industrial final track: ‘Always There…In Our Hearts’, it’s undeniably the record’s most cathartic moment. Out of the barren haze, imposing darkness and looping artificial abstraction comes a sense of some humanity returning, epitomised by the closing snatch of conversation we hear.
At the end of the world bring headphones.