The Flaming Lips have been around since the early ’80s, receiving more or less constant critical acclaim, if relatively modest commercial success. An early hit for the band, ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’, brought them into the spotlight, but it wasn’t until the late ’90s that they made their artistic breakthrough.
2002′s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots represented a major shift in sound for the band, from indie rock to a fusion of folk, electro and psychadelica, and propelled them straight to the top of the alternative scene. Since then the band have had another, similarly successful album and have become known for their over the top and eccentric live shows.
This brief history is necessary to understand that rather than stick to what is clearly a winning formula, on latest effort Embryonic, the band have dropped a lot of their hit-making charm in exchange for something darker and more experimental.
The first thing to notice about Embryonic is that it is a double album. It’s also an album without any real concept or theme, another difference from previous releases. It features many collaborators, from Yeah Yeah Yeah’s front woman Karen O to MGMT. There’s even a rather strange collaboration with a German mathematician.
Stylistically, this album is far more abrasive; an unpolished and raw production in place of the cleaner, digital sounding songs characteristic of the band. The tracks are fairly sparse, often just a distorted bass and pounding drum kit, with strange sounds emerging from the darkened room I imagine this album being recorded in.
Due to the fact that this album is quite a long sonic experiment, with no real ‘hits’ to be found, it’s better to sum up as an overall piece, which I shall do now.
Embryonic is far too long. This album is 18 soundscapes, some creative and beautiful, some raw and powerful. Others are just plain boring. An example of creative and beautiful is ‘Evil’. This slow-mover features its share of evil sounds, but at its centre is a haunting piece of music, driven by an incredible atmosphere of unpredictability and the unknown, and featuring a breath taking vocal performance from front man Wayne Coyne.
An example of raw and powerful is ‘Worm Mountain’, the brilliant MGMT collaboration. For me this track is the album’s sound done right. Again we have a distorted pounding bass line, and driving percussion, but this time we have a catchy melody and a real feeling of energy. An album highlight for me.
There are other good songs, album opener ‘Convinced Of The Hex’ and ‘I Can Be A Frog’ featuring Karen O are other highlights, showcasing that above anything else, The Flaming Lips are a group of very eccentric and creative songwriters.
The album as a whole is interesting, but joins the ranks of yet another double album that should have been a single album. Wayne Coyne claims this is the band’s The White Album and maybe it is. But there isn’t enough engaging, memorable material to make it truly brilliant. It is definitely worth a listen, perhaps nothing more.