"What? What does it mean? / To dream what you dream? / To believe what you see?"
Best Song: Uhh...Powerless??? Maybe?
Worst Song: Virgo Self-Esteem Broadcast, but even that one works excellently in context
-- The Flaming Lips, 1993
Well, that's one way of putting it. After the mild disappointment of At War with the Mystics, it seems that the band realized that they haaaaaad the most...beauuuutiful faaace...no, wait. Sorry. That's not what they realized at all. They realized THAT way back in 2001.
No, after At War with the Mystics they realized that while they technically *could* continue in their established direction of heart-warming synth-pop, it was universally agreed on that the best parts of Mystics were the ones that strayed away from the norm -- i.e. the epic progressive tendencies of "Pompeii" and the like. And thus, the idea of The Flaming Lips making non-pop music was born. Sure, yeah, they were quite experimental very early in their career, but most of these "experiments" were pretty amateurish and underwhelming.
And as experimental as the early releases were, they still weren't all that groundbreaking. They were more experimental on the individual scale of the band, as opposed to on a mass scale -- i.e. something like "Love Yer Brain". An anthemic piano ballad is hardly anything too unique, but anthemic piano ballad performed by a late-80s punk/indie rock band? Now that's somewhat interesting.
But even so, it wasn't like they were making any waves on the public consciousness. Heck, even to their listeners, these experiments were more merely interesting oddities than mindblowing sonic experiments.
It seems that the band wanted to get out from under the weight of being endlessly compared to 70s bands (Pink Floyd, Genesis, etc.). Thus, they decided to boldly go where no band had gone before. And boy howdy, did they ever go there.
It'd be nearly impossible for me to describe the sonic palette of Embryonic to you, but I'll go ahead and try anyways. While the album is NOWHERE near as cheery as Mystics, the band did seem to hold onto a bit of that album's full, busy production. However, that manic level of production is used rather sparingly here, not to mention that the mixing is WAY better than that album. And as for the music itself, the sound manages to strike a perfect balance between earthy and otherworldly, as well as a balance between typical instrumentation and synthesized sounds.
And what kind of sounds and instrumentation are we talking about here? Synapsing, static-y synths, brutally apocalyptic drumming, ear-shredding guitars, ethereal choirs, some of the greatest bass lines of all time, and this one particular tinkling keyboard tone that haunts the album for its entire running time (if you've heard the album, you'll know what I'm talking about). And then there's Wayne...wow. He completely reinvented his singing style yet again, and it works SO WELL. As opposed to his typically cheery falsetto, he decided to take on the role of some...evil sci-fi villain, or something. He moans and coos with what sounds like a wicked smile on his face for the whole experience. In "Sagittarius Silver Announcement", he sounds like some sadistic military general knowingly ordering his troops to their slaughter -- never again will the words "Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes." haunt you so much.
And as for "Worm Mountain" -- OHHHH, that "Worm Mountain" -- Wayne brings in the guys from MGMT to back him up in screaming out a melody like some mad cult chanting its rituals. Combine that with some KILLER drumming, a terrifying bassline, and that eerie-as-hell way that Steven whispers "cha!" during the instrumental breaks and you've got yourself a classic. And then that Soft Bulletin-tastic string section comes in at the end and...mmm.
So if you can't tell, what we have here sounds NOTHING like anything the Lips had been doing for their entire career. Heck, what we have here sounds nothing like anything else I've ever heard! They managed to tap into a sound unlike any other album I can think of, and it's not even that samey!
Y'see, what I mean is this -- most albums that have extremely unique sounds to them end up becoming a bit tired towards the end. Pet Sounds, Wish You Were Here, and maybe even Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots -- all of these albums have very distinct styles, yet by their respective finishes the listener feels somewhat exhausted.
Not so here. They manage to cram this style of theirs into as many forms as humanly possible over the course of 70 minutes (their longest album to date), and as such the album never lags for even a minute. Sound collages? You got it. Miles Davis-esque free-form jazz freakouts? They're here, but they're filled with stinging harps and slashing synths in addition to Miles' standard wah-wah guitars, manic basslines, and breakneck drumming. Is it heavy rockers that you want? The afore-mentioned "Worm Mountain" should serve you nicely, as well as the thumping "See the Leaves". Ooo, you're a fan of Kraut-rock, eh? The Tago Mago-stomp of "Convinced of the Hex" and the uber-climactic "Watching the Planets" will definitely please you.
And that's not to mention the piano ballads, the slightly twisted lullabies, the schizophrenic blasts of energy, the ethereally Floydian dirges, or the gentle, swaying croons. Plus, I can guarantee that none of these tracks will sound like ANY of their other genre counterparts, thanks to the band's mind-blowing sound palette and abnormal song structures.
Some specific highlights include the simultaneously frenzied and somewhat chill "Silver Trembling Hands" (which, for the record, is absolutely PHENOMENAL live), the glorious choirs and thumping bass of "Gemini Syringes", and my personal favorite, "Powerless". Wayne's delivery here is jaw-dropping (just try not to get goosebumps when he says "It only happens if you tryyyyyyyyYYYYYYYYYY!!"), the bass-line is stunning (as expected), and the minimalistic percussion is ridiculously cool, but the real draw here is that...that guitar solo. It winds on and on for a good 3 minutes, but it never feels a second overlong. It just gradually crescendoes into an absolute EXPLOSION of a conclusion that pops up yet again during the second verse. Gah, it just KILLLLS me every time I hear it.
I could say so much more. I could tell you about how the album flows so fantastically, about how songs that I'm not even that thrilled with ("Virgo Self-Esteem Broadcast", "Your Bats") sound PERFECT when placed in context, about how it's insane that an album released in late 2009 to a relatively small bit of critical fanfare manages to be among my 20 or so favorite albums ever. I just can't make myself give it anything higher than a 14, but it's the highest 14 I think I'll ever give. I'll just say this -- it's a difficult album. It'll take you a good 3 or so listens to sort through the noise and chaos. But dangit, it's my favorite album that's been released since the 70s -- that's my story, and I'm sticking to it. You NEED this in your collection...but maybe get some other Lips stuff first. And in case you're still asking if you should buy it...I can only say one thing: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.