Album Review: The Flaming Lips – “The Terror”

The Flaming Lips - "The Terror"
The Flaming Lips – “The Terror”

It has taken me this long to digest The Flaming Lips most recent album, “The Terror.” It came out 4 months ago and I have given it several listens in that time. Admittedly the first time I listened to it, maybe a week or two before release, I set it aside and said to friends that I would never listen to it again. A few months went by and in July I gave it another few more shots.

The fact that it took me so long to get around to listening to the album didn’t have so much to do with how difficult a listen it is at first (and it is, truly, like nothing else the band has done before) as much as it might have to do with Wayne Coyne’s obsession with being the center of attention at all times. A few years ago I began getting annoyed by incessant releases of super-gimmicky collectors items. I was annoyed by the mediocrity of their cover of Pink Floyd’s entire “Dark Side of the Moon.” I was annoyed with the completely lackluster EP that the band did with Lightning Bolt. Actually that one angered me more than it annoyed me.

The Flaming Lips are becoming, it seems, increasingly interested in perpetuating their schtick of being the freaks on acid that release albums in jelly skulls and boxed sets of vinyl with the blood of the artists inside the vinyl. All the publicity stunts and Wayne’s completely obnoxious twitter account were enough to make one hope that they were putting as much thought, time and energy into their actual music.

The Terror shows that the Lips definitely were thinking about their music this whole time. And when I say they were thinking about it I mean that they basically stripped it all away and started over. This album is such a hard listen at first because there really are very few places for a listen to get a foothold. There are so few points of reference, with melodies deeply woven into the overall ambient landscape that sprawls seamlessly from beginning to end.

Wayne’s voice, surprisingly lacking the rasp of the past few releases, sings mostly in a  falsetto that echoes in the distance for most of the tracks. The instruments are stripped down, with electronic loops and layers of atmospheric synth patches dominating while Drozd’s guitar work is mostly absent except for occasional short chordal stabs that created a brightness that cuts through the dense haze of the synths.

Be Free, A Way

I’ve always loved albums that are able to create a distinctive sound that carries from song to song, with each track having at least that one common thread between them. Perhaps when I first listened to this I was listening incorrectly. I was listening for something to hook me in, something that was repeated and would become recognizable because of the way that it stood apart from other elements. Only in the past few weeks did I come to realize that the point of this album is that it is basically one long track, and that is not a detriment. That’s the way that they have decided that they were going to tie the album together, but to that end it also forces us, in a way, to listen to the album in its entirety when we do decide to listen.

And that is the thing about this album, it requires a commitment on the part of the listener. One can’t passively listen to “The Terror,” there aren’t really any tracks to pull out. It’s the entire album. At once. Stop doing other things while you’re listening, sit down and hear what is going on because it is complex and it is demanding and it’s time for you, as a listener, to hold up your end of the bargain.

Some of this all seems pretty obvious. There is no “Race For the Prize,” there is no “Do You Realize,” but that doesn’t mean that the album should be ignored. These are all things that I am learning, obviously most every other person out there that has reviewed this album has heaped praise onto it. I don’t think that my typical analytical approach of searching track by track through every minute detail to uncover the bits that are good and the bits that are less good, works here. I think that the lesson to be learned here is that it is possible to create an album that ditches short form melodic content in order to shape a much larger picture. It feels like the entire album is building, for nearly 52 minutes, toward the guitars and cavernous drums of “Always There…In Our Hearts.” Daring move, to say the least. The song doesn’t work as well without that buildup to it, it simply doesn’t make much sense.

Like a set of variations in reverse, the main material only comes clearly into view at the very end. The layers of ambiance and atmospherics are built up and subsequently stripped away to reveal that final track. That is a journey worth taking.