The Flaming Lips

'Embryonic' (Warner Bros.) -- 4 STARS

The Flaming Lips are an American musical institution, and they may be the last of their kind. Not that this sort of thing ever came around so often, or even that there was more than one like them to begin with. Wayne Coyne and his merry band of psychic minstrels have wandered the earth together for nearly 30 years, and in that time they’ve produced 12 studio albums, 2 documentaries and a feature film; they’ve ridden the crest of approximately three musical waves; and they’ve recorded exactly one song­—Okla. state rock song “Do You Realize??”—whose sheer transcendence has insured the band immortality beyond all possible contingency.

Like the Grateful Dead, that other storied American collective, the Flaming Lips are the residue of a revolutionary and long-outmoded turning point in popular music: the Dead had the psychedelic era; the Lips had punk rock. Both bands derive their sound from a host of intersecting genres and traditions: the Dead had blues, country, and folk; the Lips have punk, pop, and space rock. But unlike the Dead, or any other group of comparable longevity, the Flaming Lips have fashioned a legacy through constant rejuvenation. Their greatest albums—1993’s “Transmissions from the Satellite Heart,” 1999’s “The Soft Bulletin,” and now 2009’s “Embryonic”—have all been the culmination of a radical change in sound and direction.

This is what made the band’s 2004 release, “At War With The Mystics,” such a frustrating album. Anyone familiar with the band’s two previous albums—“The Soft Bulletin” and 2002’s “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots”—will be able to point to the myriad recycle tropes that propped that record up. “Mystics” attempts to craft simpler, theoretically catchier—and typically somewhat monotonous—pop songs with the same sort of thematic import that made the elegant, orchestral, deeply emotive “Yoshimi” standout “Do You Realize??” such a runaway hit. Instead, it oversimplified the formula, leaving even the catchiest of those songs relatively limp.

So with their relevance as innovators hanging in the balance, the Flaming Lips deliver their latest effort in the nick of time. “Embryonic” challenges in a way that nothing of their latter-day output since 1997’s “Zaireeka”—the infamous 4-CD album whose simultaneous playing allegedly replicates quadraphonic sound—had ever aspired. It’s also the first since that album to lack a substantive point of reference in the band’s earlier catalogue. “Embryonic” is an anomaly, and while its uniqueness alone doesn’t denote quality, the album provides enough muscle and musical clout to make the sonic shift more than justified.

Opener “Convinced of the Hex” immediately grounds the album in totally foreign territory for Flaming Lips fans. Bass-heavy, rife with corrosive guitar licks and polyrhythmic percussion, the song features a spaced-out—and for the first time, restrained—vocal performance from Coyne. He’s still speaking his own half-cracked pseudo-religious language, but it’s obvious from the beginning that, for the first time in a long time, lyrics don’t matter very much to the Flaming Lips. The downright raucous “Aquarius Sabotage,” a sort of ecstatic surf-rock jam, equipped with glockenspiel and an orchestral coda, raises the paradox as its thesis: the Flaming Lips want their bull and their china shop too. The sonic center of the album, “Powerless,” is a sinister instrumental piece over which guitarist Steve Drozd erratically improvises, to an effect at turns intense and enervating. But the most thrilling moment of “Embryonic” is towards its end—the signature-switching “Silver Trembling Hands,” whose punk-tempo framework balances gorgeously with a slow-motion release and refrain. At an hour and ten minutes, “Embryonic” has enough high points that potential favorites abound.

“Embryonic,” for all its surprises, fits logically within the Lip’s ethic—its existence as a double album that insists on a total listening experience is anachronistic in the way the band is known for. Whether this plays to the strengths of the new material is up for debate—there are certainly moments that are lost in the continuum. It’s unclear whether those more sedate tracks like “Evil,” “If” and “Sagittarius Silver Announcement”—which are transitional in the way that previous albums’ instrumental tracks were—are engaging or expendable. Production remains consistently eclectic throughout, raising the question as to whether certain songs even make sense divorced from the body of “Embryonic.”

The spacious, lush, and shockingly dark production values on “Embryonic” comprise the only substantive lens through which comparisons to earlier material can be made. The sheer level of studio precision involved in crafting these songs—feedback and percussion loops, vocal layering, electronic flourishes—can’t escape a comparison to the techniques that brought “The Soft Bulletin” to life. But the relationship between the two records is almost totally inverted: while “The Soft Bulletin” brought a cinematic—at times even an operatic—sensibility to its structure, emphasizing the individual track as an autonomous episode within a greater, looser narrative, “Embryonic” reverts the energy of the single track toward a teleology that is itself the album-whole. It’s dense, menacing, and groove-oriented in a way that reminds the listener of the Talking Heads’ “Remain in Light,” an album whose individual tracks tend to be lost, or at least less potent, outside the framework of the album proper. In this way, “Embryonic” could be the paranoiac subconscious of any one of the passengers aboard ship of fools that was “The Soft Bulletin.” It remains an open question as to whether the choice not to produce with David Friedman—known for his work in psych-rock band Mercury Rev—for the first time since 1989’s “Telepathic Surgery” allowed for this sudden burst of inspiration from the band.

But the comparisons do little to prove what’s already apparent—the Flaming Lips have made their first truly important record in a decade, and whether it meets expectations, perverts them, or annihilates them completely, “Embryonic” stands as yet another milestone for the veterans of the alternative rock aftermath: that of the difficult masterpiece.

—Staff writer Ryan J. Meehan can be reached at rmeehan@fas.harvard.edu.

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