Sunday, June 9, 2013

At War with the Mystics -- The Flaming Lips -- Review

At War with the Mystics (2006)
Rating: 11
"Now we'll be forever holding hands / Lava and tephra will form our beds"
Best Song: The Sound of Failure / It's Dark... Is It Always This Dark??
Worst Song: Haven't Got a Clue 

       One quick note before I begin: the band's song-naming tendencies reached a level of absolute insanity on this album. As such, and for comedic and entertaining effect, I've decided to use each song's proper title throughout this review. Enjoy.
       Now, with that out of the way...geez, what a weird album. The band apparently decided that it would be best to split off into a variety of genres, which, now that I think about it, wasn't a half-bad decision. I mean, if the band had created yet ANOTHER psychedelic chamber-pop meditation on love and death, I imagine that the press would've chastised them for a lack of creativity. Of course, the press chastised them about the album anyway, but we'll get to that in a minute. 
       So as I said, instead of releasing yet another copy of Soft Bulletin, they decided to try out some different genres. What genres in particular, you ask? Well, there's a horrifically stiff attempt at something resembling funk, some late 70s-sounding soft-rock (parts of this sound EERILY similar to the kind of stuff Daft Punk is doing on Random Access Memories), a few songs in their now-standard synth-pop vein (although this stuff's far poppier than the things on Bulletin), as well as what seems to be the band's newest obsession -- good 'ol fashioned PROG. 
       Of course, I did say previously that the band had been showing progressive tendencies, didn't I? I mean, shape-shifting songs like "The Spark That Bled" and "In the Morning of the Magicians" seem pretty darn progressive, don't they? However, there is one key distinction to be made here -- these songs, while certainly progressive IN FORM, didn't exactly sound like Yes or Genesis (okay, maybe the first part of "The Spark That Bled" kinda did, but whatever). In other words, nothing the band had made previously sounded even slightly close to the epic Floydian stomp of "Pompeii am Götterdämmerung". This isn't fruity synth-pop; this is an all-out attack on the senses, a hopped-up attempt at making a "One of These Days" for the 21st century.
      And woo, did they ever. Steven finally gets to sing lead on a track, and he's remarkable (as is the melody), but the real thrill here is in the arrangement. Okay, the sound peaks out at times (which reveals one major problem with the album; whoever mixed this thing was a total hack), but woah...the way that those near-metal guitar riffs combine with the apocalyptic drumming and jaw-dropping mellotron melodies, ON TOP of Steven's already brilliant and atmospheric's sheer progressive perfection.
      Yet somehow "The Sound of Failure / It's Dark... Is It Always This Dark??" is even better. The general atmosphere of the track perfectly evokes a dark, ethereal night in my mind (this idea is complimented by the wondrous line "Standing there in the graveyard / While the moon sprays its fireworks in your hair"), and the general story of the song is a good one too! It seems to be describing the effect of death on a young girl, thus causing her to reject vapid modern pop music (thus the oft-debated references to Gwen Stefani and Britney Spears in the chorus; personally, they've never bothered me), as it's quite the opposite of this "sound of failure" that the girl seems so desperate to find. And despite the fantastic lyrical content, the truly brilliant aspect of the song is still the music! Wayne sounds fantastic as he sings a mystifying (and ridiculously catchy) vocal melody over some brilliantly prog-y keyboards and dueling guitars that just keep soloing over each other in an absolutely magical way. And I also love how the song gradually fades into that beautiful, near-ambient "It's Dark..." section right at the end.....hoo boy, this stuff's great.
       But that's about all the prog there is...or maybe not. You see, there's one other song that's at least somewhat prog -- the incredibly divisive "It Overtakes Me / The Stars Are So Big... I Am So Small... Do I Stand a Chance?". Of course, the first half is an INCREDIBLY silly pop song, but personally I don't mind silly pop songs as long as they're well-constructed (see: ABBA). This, however, isn't the case here; ok, parts of the melody are somewhat enjoyable, and the bass line is pretty fun, but it's just a bit too inane and repetitive for me to really enjoy it. The second half of the song, though, is quite good; it's basically a remake of "It's Dark... Is It Always This Dark?" from earlier in the album, but I think it might be even better! The closest comparison I can find is "I Get Up I Get Down" from Close to the Edge, and that's a pretty big compliment in itself. Soothing steel guitar, ethereal choirs, great singing from Wayne...very pristine and very, very pretty. So in all honesty, it's hard for me to dislike the track.
       I can, however, dislike "Haven't Got a Clue". It's yet another silly pop song, but with this one I can find next-to-no positive attributes whatsoever. The melody is annoying, the sound effects are ridiculously overbearing, and every time the song builds up any bit of fun or momentum whatsoever the whole thing just drops out into floaty-ambient-land, a place where no song like this needs to go. And after a few seconds of that it just JOLTS right back into the irritating melody. And those little mouth sounds that Wayne makes are absolutely disgusting...those "*puhdddddd, puh ddd ddd, puh dd ddd, puh ddd ddd*" noises are as irritating as some of McCartney's unfortunate vocal excesses on Ram ("...a peeee-ano up mah nose! and the wind! played! a dreadfuuuuul! contataaaaaa, contataaaaaa, contataaaaaa!" Ugh.).
       And while I don't *hate* the opening "Yeah Yeah Yeah Song (With All Your Power)", I certainly don't love it either. I suppose the vocoder bits in the chorus are fun, and Wayne's melody is decent enough, but those over-the-top sound effects come daaangerously close to ruining it for me. In all honesty, I used to love this song, but if anything it's grown off me over the years. Same for "Free Radicals (A Hallucination of the Christmas Skeleton Pleading with a Suicide Bomber), a sloppy (but fun!) attempt at funk. I can TOTALLY see how someone could despise this song, and again, I don't love it like I used to, but still...I get a strange sort of joy out of that addictively twitchy guitar riff and those "Helter Skelter"-esque backing harmonies. Sue me.
       "The W.A.N.D. (The Will Always Negates Defeat)", however, is an undisputed classic -- the band's first attempt at guitar-rock in years, and in all honesty, one of their best. Melody? Great. Riff? Great. Drumming? Great. Even the wacky sound effects and production tricks work here. It's one of the two or three best tracks on here, no doubt.
       So there's the prog, guitar-rock, and synth-pop....wait, what was that other genre I was talking about? OHHH, right, soft-rock. Well, it's here, and it's not completely great (although some of it is), but most of it's pretty good. I'm not completely sold on "Mr. Ambulance Driver" (I LOVE-LOVE-LOVE the mood and atmosphere; I just wish the melody had more than two notes...), but "Vein of Stars" and "Goin' On" are both pretty fantastic. "Vein" is simply another great song in that classic "star-gazing" Lips vein, one filled with all the wonder and beauty you'd hope it would, and "Goin' On" is a fairly nice piano ballad that ends the album on a sweet, although not extremely memorable, note. I still love it, though.
       Yeah, it's somewhat flawed. It's the worst that they had made since at least Hit to Death, but there's still a lot of GREAT stuff on here that any Lips fan worth his/her salt needs to hear. I still listen to it quite regularly, but I just wish that they had trimmed it down a bit. A forty-minute version of this could easily be a 12, but it's still pretty great the way it is. It's also quite accessible; definitely make this among your first purchases from these guys. But eh, forget this stuff -- EMBRYONIC IS NEXT, YAAAAY.

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