Caught by the River


21st October 2009


Well, someone was bound to end up taking the brown acid eventually. “Embryonic” by The Flaming Lips emerges dazed and confused into the Christmas market like an Apocalypse Now-era Dennis Hopper stumbling out of Oxford Circus tube on December 24th. Truly, this record takes the term ‘fried’ to giddy new levels.

“Embryonic”, the follow up to three hit albums on the trot, seems to have been conceived as a test of the listener’s patience. First off, it’s a traditional double album. It’s based mainly around improvisational jams edited down to give the semblance of song structures. It features guest spots from Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeah’s making animal noises and a German mathematician waffling on in technical jargon. And finally (and surely most trying of all), it’s an unabashed prog-rock record.

Wait… come back…

This is, after all, The Flaming Lips – the band whose default setting for years was deafening outré drug-addled rambling, a niche genre they successfully made all their own. Eschewing the audience friendly pizzazz of their last few albums (from the genius game changer “The Soft Bulletin” through to the increasingly knackered sounding “At War With The Mystics”), “Embryonic” is a febrile blast of deranged energy and a return to the Lips of the late ‘80s, back when they made the kind of records that would scare hippies straight. Described by the band as a cross between “Miles Davis and Joy Division”, here bass guitars are overdriven to the point of speaker bruising distortion; ear-splitting skronk phazes from side to side; unhinged and portentous vocals seem to point towards some awful unforeseen inevitability. On “Worm Mountain” a Galactus sized dirge-rock riff sounds so threatening you half imagine it’s coming round your house to punch you out. When the band pause for breath, like on “Evil” (a slow motion tone poem that seems to slow the world on its axis), it comes with by a faintly discomfiting calm. The nagging feeling persists that it’s going to go horribly wrong any minute.

Lyrically, “Embryonic” emits the same kind of tension you hear on records like “In The Court Of The Crimson King” or those by mid ‘70s Pink Floyd – a crippling paranoia that fires out at unseen forces while also offering blank and tacit acceptance that we’re all fucked. It’s dizzying in the extreme, like someone trying to talk to you about conspiracy theories at 8 in the morning after the kind of indulgence that would make a pharmacist blush. All the while, the band grinds away like they are soundtracking a 25th century zero gravity porno movie. The overall effect is quite unlike any record I can think of by a band in their position (breathe a sigh of relief – it stops some way short of “Metal Machine Music”). Brave, futuristic and utterly demented, it fizzes with nervous energy. It’s as if the band have no real idea where the record is taking them (in interviews, Lips mainman Wayne Coyne has said as much). That a band on a major label in a time of economic freefall should chose to release an album this perverse into a market at best described as ‘chronically depressed’ is suicidal and massively commendable. At no point does it sound like anyone has ordered the band to come back when they’ve written a hit. Even Karen O’s quixotic vocal trip through Noah’s Ark on “I Can Be A Frog” – a supposed light moment – is broadsided by a portentous arrangement and a sense that the person making the noises might actually be mad. The whole thing might as well come with a sticker reading “Not For The Faint Hearted”.

What you’re left with is a record both exciting and deeply strange – one where the oddness and the imperfections so prevalent in every song bounce together to create one of the most interesting, inspired and insane records of the last decade. Time will tell whether it’s merely an oddity between more commercial albums or the first staging outpost on a fantastical journey in a new direction. In the meantime, full respect to the band for ploughing on so relentlessly into the unknown in the here and now.

Robin Turner