Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Terror -- The Flaming Lips -- Review

The Terror (2013)
Rating: 12
"Try to explain why you've changed / I don't think I understand"
Best Song: Be Free, A Way
Worst Song: You Are Alone

      Well. Here we are. After nearly 30 years of albums, fetuses, Bulletins, 3 or 4 reinventions of style, Ke$ha collaborations (and that's not over; there's an entire collaborative album with her coming out this fall entitled Lip$ha -- no joke), Pink Floyd covers, and ridiculous live shows, the band has finally come face-to-face with the one (and pretty much only) thing it's avoided for its entire career -- negativity
       ....or at least that's what the press is leading you to believe. Of course, it's not like "Ashes in the Air", "Evil", "Worm Mountain", "Slow*Nerve*Action", "Pompeii am Gotterdammerung", or "The Ego's Last Stand" were "Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows", but the media does have a point. For the band's entire career, Wayne has taken on the role of happy-go-lucky, psychedelic motivational speaker, the kind of guy who's always telling you the positives in every situation -- "Psychiatric Explorations of the Fetus with Needles", "Fight Test", "Buggin", and the like are essentially the aural essence of happiness, despite the lyrics sometimes having a slight tinge of melancholy. 
       Heck, the first song released from the album, the bonus track "Sun Blows Up Today", was described by many as "the Lips having fun again", and I agree with that sentiment; that song is a pure distillation of happiness, with nary a dark cloud in sight. Nonsensical, joyfully sung lyrics like "run and run and too much fun today!!" are spread all over the track, which is essentially a psychedelic, manic cheerleading session filled to the brim with silly keyboard effects and punky guitar riffage. 
       In retrospect, it seems that the band was obviously making something of a joke; "Sun Blows Up Today" is, in essence, the exact ANTITHESIS of The Terror. When the bonus track shows up at the end of the album, it almost seems like a biting, sardonic joke; hearing this kind of happiness following such a non-stop barrage of, well, terror, almost becomes hilarious in a twisted sort of way.
       But who am I to engage in four lengthy paragraphs of Pitchfork-esque navel-gazing?!? I'm Reagan-freaking-Jones, am I not?! I'm the guy who does nothing more than analyze the album in question! I never indulge in evaluating the so-called "importance" of this sort of thing; it's just music, for Pete's sake. It's not like it's art, or anything...
       However, the reason I'm talking so much about it is that I just find it interesting; the Lips freaking' DEFINE the word "enigma", and this light/dark aspect only adds to it. Never mind the fact that despite constant advertisements (I've seen The Terror banner adds all over music sites for weeks; heck, I've seen ads for it on Facebook) and high-profile collaborations have invaded the public consciousness for some time now, today's the album's launch and according to my iTunes...it was the nineteenth highest selling album of the day. IT'S ON THE FRONT PAGE. IT'S HEAVILY PROMOTED. THEY'RE THE FLAMING FREAKIN' LIPS. And yet they still can't hit a higher chart number than nineteen. 
       And who's above them on the chart? Casey Donahew, Granger Smith, Olly Murs, and Andy Mineo....whoever those people are. Okay, I'm not pretending to be ridiculously informed about modern music artists, but still....
       So with alllllll that outta the way, how about we talk about....THE ALBUM?!? Sounds good to me. So, for starters -- wow, that's some seriously awesome album art. I mean, geez, I'm ready to declare it the best Lips cover ever. Of course, it's not like this band has some notoriously great covers or anything, but still...that looks awesome. Even the FONT looks amazing! It's like, rockin' this whole cold, futuristic look, and the red and white lettering is all stark and whatnot...I LOVE IT, and I'm not even the kind of guy who obsesses over things like this! I suppose the main thing that I love about it is that with an album named The Terror, the band easily could have gone with a dark, bloody, disturbing piece of work. Instead they went for a distant, melancholy, natural theme; and I loooooove it. (Dig that blue and orange!) Also, that whole idea works for the album too. It's not a horror film; it's a slow, devastating piece of work that sloooowwly turns its knife within you. It's not beating you over the head with its...erm..."terror"-ness.
       The cover also seems to evoke memories of the cover to The Soft Bulletin; what with the masculine, solitary figure staring out into a sci-fi environment. And, yet again, this theme translates to the actual music itself; whereas Bulletin consisted of someone trying desperately to come to terms with the horrors of the world around them by sheer positivity and happiness (see: "The Spiderbite Song", "Feeling Yourself Disentigrate", "The Gash"), this one features someone simply simply giving up and fading into the horrors of the world around them. So in short, yes, the album's as bleak as you've heard that it is.
        However, it starts out normally enough. Opener "Look...The Sun Is Rising" actually sounds like something you might hear on Embryonic, full of outer-space lyrical imagery, skittery guitar riffage, busy electronic effects, and a proggy vocal melody. It's not an album highlight, but it's a decent start -- plus, there's the whole continuity effect in play here with Embryonic; keep in mind that the very end of that album featured the band chanting the "sun's gonna rise!". Well, now it's rising, and Wayne doesn't seem too happy about it. And as his vocals begin to loop in a disturbing, twisted fashion at the end of the song, the album slowly drifts into the darkness, and it stays there for the rest of its running time.
       Our first exposure to the true meat of the album is "Be Free, A Way". Not only is the mood as oppressive and dark as you would hope, Wayne's vocal melody here is EXCELLENT; heck, if you were to change it to a major key and jack the tempo way up, I could see this thing being a viable pop single! But it's perfect the way it is here -- the otherworldly harmonies, the subtly thumping rhythms -- and that OUTRO...ohhhh, that outro. See, it's moments like this that make the album really effective. After continuing through the whole song for about 4 minutes, the track gradually changes into this really heartbreaking, lonely cascade of Wayne's ethereal vocals over a looping keyboard chord sequence. It only lasts for about a minute, but it just hits me right in the gut every time I hear it...it's freakin' magical.
       Then we get "Try to Explain", which has one of the most absolutely heart-pounding choruses I've ever heard. It works in a sort of "Are You a Hypnotist??" kind of way -- the melody itself is magical enough on its own, but when backed by this sheer wall of synthesized choirs and mellotrons, it crosses the line to perfection. The rest of the song sorta wallows around in this depressing sorrow, and while that's perfectly well and good, it's the chorus that truly seals the deal for me here.
      And then we arrive at what is sure to be the album's most polarizing number, "You Lust". It's a 13-minute (!!!) drone, and when I say "drone", I mean it -- the middle section (which takes up about half the song) is nothing more than some simple keyboard drones over a looping guitar riff and drum machine. However, the verses are an entirely different matter; the riff and drum loop remain, but on top of them Wayne and a female vocalist (apparently of the band Phantogram) perform a WONDERFUL duet, with their voices slinking along the seductive, dangerous sounding backing track. And why shouldn't it sound seductive and dangerous, it's a song about lust! But not the sensual kind; no, the song is about the lust for success and popularity, as the off-putting, whispered chants of "YOU LUST TO SUC-CEED! YOU LUST TO SUC-CEED!" reveal.
       The outro here is also quite reminiscent of the one from "Be Free, A Way"; it sounds completely different from the regular song, with what sounds like a synthesized recorder looping over what sounds suspiciously like a Brian Eno ambient track (think "Tal Coat"). Hey, that brings me to a good point -- this album is VERRRRY influenced by ambient music. Like, a lot. So if the idea of music without non-stop melody (or even music without a noticeable form and structure), this probably isn't the album for you.
       But back to "You Lust" -- the verses should be pretty much loved by everyone who likes the album, but that middle section's a different story. Going back to the Eno comparison, I would say it works essentially like a creepy, more well-developed 6-minute version of "Sombre Reptiles". And in my opinion, it works like a charm. You may disagree, but I find it utterly hypnotizing.
       And then it goes on. After this point (which is about halfway through the album), I find that the music takes a bit of a downward turn. The songs after this aren't that much weaker than the first four, but nevertheless, they are indeed somewhat worse. It also doesn't help that after 30 minutes of it, the novelty of this incomparable mood has worn off a bit, and thus the songs don't hit you as hard. If it were up to me, I would have put the weaker tracks towards the beginning, but whatever the case -- they're still alright. The title track bobbles around over schizophrenic synth-pings and skittery drum rhythms (it reminds me a lot of "Kid A" -- not the album, the actual song), "Turning Violent" has a decent, Drozd-sung melody, and "Butterfly, How Long It Takes To Die" is an alright track that sounds like...everything else on here.
       The only track that truly falls flat on its face is that droning, endless "You Are Alone" that simply has Wayne (or is that Steven?) moaning in a falsetto "You are alooonee...." over a minimalist backing for 3.5 minutes. It works decently as an interstitial, but for nearly 4 minutes? No thank you.
       Thankfully, the album ends on a high note with the rockin' (well...kinda) "Always There, In Our Hearts". It starts out in the spirit of everything else in the album, but soon enough a creepy voice counting-off "One two three four..." starts panning from left to right. Then the song kicks into overdrive, with the drum line and guitar riff from "Look...The Sun Is Rising" making a return as Wayne coos over everything. It really brings the whole album together in a very cool way, and I can definitely dig that.
       And thus ends the longest review I've written in the history of this site. But hey, it was worth it -- it may not be perfect (I get a bit bored at the halfway point), but it's ultimately an EXTREMELY interesting album, one I'll be returning to for years to come. If you're a Lips fan, you should be all over this. For anyone else? ...start with The Soft Bulletin or Yoshimi

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