REVIEW: The Flaming Lips - The Terror

It was all good seven years ago.  You had someplace sunny you wanted to go and a house band to soundtrack the trip.  Wayne Coyne and his band of merry men, The Flaming Lips, believed in you and your beautiful face, and they wanted you to believe in yourself.  After all, as they insistently advised, you had the power right there in your wand, if you would only take a moment to consider what you were willing to do with that power.  If you could just remember that will always negates defeat, things would be fine…

Things have changed.

Where their 2009 masterpiece Embryonic signaled a shift away from the many happy psychedelic sermons Coyne had offered to date (and featured some of multi-instrumentalist Stephen Drozd’s most muscular, menacing work ever), The Terror is that shift made manifest.  Distant vocals portending a dark, isolated word are frequently subsumed by guitars, organs, and instruments unknown.  Sounds bleed from one song into the next, making the album easy to consume as a series of movements rather than as disparate tracks.  The effect provides a perspective that is both disorienting and disoriented, bringing sonic depth to a world where the seemingly free will is governed by unseen alien forces in the clouds and the sun is a constant that provides no warmth in its stunted, choking light.

The Terror is at times ostentatious and accessible, particularly on tracks like “Look…  The Sun Rising” and “Butterfly, How Long It Takes to Die” where drummer Kliph Scurlock provides nimble, infectious percussion.  More often it is beautifully, hauntingly dystopian, particularly on the title track and the closing stretch of “Turning Violent” and “Always There, in Our Hearts.”  On the latter, Drozd and fellow multi-instrumentalist Michael Ivins build to a satisfying if understated groove, one of the album’s best, before the entire song dissolves into a swirling echo and eventually collapses.  Lyrically, Coyne’s prior emphasis on mystical, optimistic, and outward-looking themes is frequently replaced with more direct, personal expressions of violence, betrayal, darkness, and a loss of control throughout the album.

On the surface, it is difficult to reconcile the Flaming Lips of one era with another.  And perhaps it isn’t even necessary to fully grapple with the cognitive dissonance of the band that recorded The Terror sharing headspace with Wayne Coyne’s recent zany, subversive Virgin Mobile commercial or the band providing the soundtrack to Hyundai’s recent Super Bowl promotion (and a Hyundai-commissioned lyric video with stunning, Technicolor imagery for a song called “The Sun Blows Up Today.”).  After all, they are a psychedelic rock band, and that means darkness as well as light.  Perhaps that grappling is the point of releasing material via thumb drives encased in gummy skulls.  Or a Henry Rollins-assisted reimagining of Pink Floyd magnum opus Dark Side of the Moon.  Or a collaborative effort that includes Ke$ha, Nick Cave, Biz Markie, Bon Iver & Coldplay’s Chris Martin among the listed “fwends.”  But listeners beware:  There is truth in advertising and The Terror isn’t the stuff of homemade confetti cannons and human hamster balls. 

Things have changed.