In Brief: The Terror has some intriguing gems buried deep in its nightmarish soundscapes. Just approach with caution if you’re not in an emotionally stable place.
It was almost 20 years ago when U2, accepting a Grammy Award for Zooropa, the most bizarre and experimental album of their career, promised us “We will continue to abuse our position and f*** up the mainstream.” Whether you’re relieved or disappointed that they abandoned this goal right around the turn of the century is a discussion for another day, I suppose, but if U2 has dropped that ball, there’s probably no better band to pick it up than The Flaming Lips. Shoot, one could argue that the Lips have had this as their goal since day one – though it’s only since about the turn of the century that they might have even been remotely considered mainstream. Somewhere along the way, they went from bizarro space-rock masterminds with an unlikely oddball radio hit, to indie pop luminaries, thanks to the success of The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, two albums which got the band a lot of press for their sudden “maturity”. They still had a lot on their minds, and weren’t dumbing anything down, as far as I could tell – they had just become more accessible. You didn’t need four stereos to listen to those albums or anything. At War with the Mystics apparently got slagged by a lot of folks for being more of the same, though that remains my personal favorite Lips album – to me it just pulled their whole bag of tricks together into more of a complete package than I’d heard from them in my admittedly limited experience with the band. I found myself at odds with the critics once again when, in 2009, the band apparently threw the sensitive indie pop playbook out the window and created the dark, sprawling, genre-hopping double disc Embryonic, which got a lot of raves, but which I personally couldn’t stand. Looking back, I appreciate the ambition behind that album now, as well as the desire to make sure fans knew they hadn’t gone soft. Amidst the long and tedious meandering experiments that I don’t really care for are some interesting and intentionally overblown rock jams, and some solid grooves that do their darndest to make dissonance catchy. Still, I can’t get into the album as a whole, and I felt like it was the first sign of the band going off the deep end (forgetting, of course, that they’d already made several laps to the deep end and back before I was even out of high school).
The ensuing years saw a flurry of releases from the band that seemed deliberately designed to sabotage our very notion of acceptable formats for music. They created a six-hour-long song, and then a twenty-four-hour-long follow-up. They released music on flash drives embedded in gummi candy with disturbing shapes. Even on the closest thing to an “album” to come out during that time, the collaborative project The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, there was a limited edition vinyl that came packaged with freaking blood samples from the various artists who sang and played with them on the record. Could be nice if you’re a rich fan seeking to create your own clone of Chris Martin or Ke$ha (and for the love of God, why?), but my personal reaction to all of the above was just to emit an uneasy laugh and slowly back away. Whatever reason I had for falling in love with this band, it was clearly a phase that they had been going through at the time, and probably not one that they were likely to return to… or that their most devoted of fans necessarily wanted them to return to.
Imagine my surprise when they came out with The Terror this year – it’s the most unrelentingly dark and depressing album of their career, and easily one of their most dissonant and experimental – and I actually ended up liking it. Could it be that those three or so years of farting around helped the band to get all of their ya-yas out so that they could focus on what makes an album cohesive and compelling? Hey, I’m all for not sticking to the album format if it means not gumming up the process with every little sonic squiggle that amuses the artist. Having another outlet for their most left-field experiments seems to have paid off for The Terror, an album on which dwelling on a mood with a minimum of distractions is integral to the experience. Embryonic may have spoken of people feeling powerless and slowly turning evil as a result, but The Terror actually tells of this experience from a first-person point of view. The album’s inspiration is summed up by lead singer Wayne Coyne as this:
“We want, or wanted, to believe that without love we would disappear, that love, somehow, would save us that, yeah, if we have love, give love and know love, we are truly alive and if there is no love, there would be no life. The Terror is, we know now, that even without love, life goes on… we just go on… there is no mercy killing.”
A world without love, and without even the eventual reassurance of death as an escape route. Sounds pretty hellish, doesn’t it? Definitely not the kind of thing accessible to a wider audience that could rack up radio hits or get chosen as a state’s Official Rock Song. Truth be told, I would have been scared to listen to such a thing just a few years ago. I just wouldn’t have had the constitution for it. What’s weird about The Terror is that it isn’t a scary album in the traditional sense, with tortured screams or bone-crushing de-tuned guitars or tons of graphic profanity, etc. Language-wise, it’s as clean as At War with the Mystics was (there’s a single f-bomb that slips in there one time, and that’s it). It’s just the mood, and the dissonant, decaying electronic sounds that the band has painstakingly put together to support that mood, that could get wearying or even potentially traumatic to sensitive listeners. There are times when I think this album should come with a “Listener Discretion Advised” warning, and not for any of the usual reasons that would get your average moral guardian up in arms. Just because I think it’s bleak enough that it could potentially be a trigger if you’re already in a really bad place emotionally. That’s not to say that any of these lyrics are condoning suicide in any way – quite the opposite, in fact, given that the entire point is how life stubbornly goes on even in the absence of a reason to live it. But, if you’re in a place where you might conceivably believe Coyne is expressing truths about our world rather than just letting a what-if scenario play out as a way of working through some of his own personal issues (the end of a 25-year-long marriage, for one), then I wouldn’t recommend adding the fuel to your fire. Being in a decent place now, where I can look back on what it’s like to have been through a few depressions, my response to the tragic tone of this album is one of curiosity and empathy. I want to at least try to judge music by whether it successfully expresses whatever it is that the musician intends to express, and by that litmus test, The Terror passes with flying colors.
There’s a downside, of course. Those used to the upfront, insistent rhythms of a lot of Flaming Lips songs, as well as the warped but indelible melodies that Coyne and his cronies seem to come up with so effortlessly, may be at a loss to appreciate how so many of these songs float in the ether, with slow rhythms when there are any at all, very little in the way of recognizable guitar riffs or sometimes even intelligible words, and even a few instances of drawn-out repetition that threaten to numb the listener into submission. It’s like a test of wills, listening to parts of this album, trying to figure out where the highlights are among a set of 9 songs that all deliberately melt into one another, playing better as a continuous suite than as a set of distinct compositions that you might find on a “normal” rock album. The weird and vaguely unnerving sounds on your average Radiohead album ain’t got nothing on this. At times it’s like being trapped in a machine, which itself is struggling on half-power, trying to keep its unstable nuclear core from a state of total meltdown. It’s quite interesting to me how vivid the pictures are that this album paints, not through lyrics (which are often minimal and repetitive), but just through its collage of sounds. They might be dredging up images of places my mind would only go in bad dreams, but these songs wouldn’t evoke nearly as much power without those distorted whirs and metallic echoes. How the band would ever pull this off live, I have no clue. This is most definitely a creation of the studio, meant to showcase their gifts as sonic landscapers, not so much as a space-aged jam band. It may well be this commitment to a serious subject that keeps the band from veering off onto some of the distasteful asides that they might on more of a light-hearted album, ironically enough. The Terror is unapologetically sad, but it never seeks to provoke or offend the listener. I can’t see this album being a lot of fans’ personal favorite – that’s equally true for folks who like their indie pop stuff like me, and for the folks who thought Embryonic was the best thing since sliced fetuses. But it’s an album that enough of their fans seem to have developed a healthy respect for, even if the subject matter understandably keeps most of the rest of the world at a distance.
1. Look… The Sun Is Rising
The last few Lips albums, Embryonic notwithstanding, have opened with their catchiest song. “Race For the Prize”, “Fight Test”, and “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” still stand out as some of the band’s most memorable and addictive tunes, welcoming the listener in before the band dived into wilder and weirder stuff. While The Terror is not concerned with catchiness by any means, that rule does still hold true for this song, which for all of its cold, machine-like noise and distorted dissonance, has a pretty strong vocal melody from Coyne and a killer drum beat from Steven Drozd. Others may not agree, focusing more on the stuttering spaceship sounds and the screechy guitar playing that, to be fair, is fixated on a single chord for the entirety of the song. If you’re not up for that sort of repetition, then this won’t be the album for you, but for me the balance is just right. Coyne manages to pull together conspiracy theories about UFOs and government mind control experiments into this brief tale about how the end of the world begins, though it’s up to you to connect the dots, since there are so few lyrics. The main idea seems to be that love has vanished, but fear and paranoia still remain, and though the song ends with a relatively peaceful sunrise, one quickly realizes it’s just the start of another indifferent day, in which the universe will be no different than the day before. What was lost is apparently never coming back.
2. Be Free, a Way
The way that the harsh rhythm of the previous track gradually bleeds into the much softer beat of this one reminds me of the transition from “Fight Test” into “One More Robot” on Yoshimi. It’s actually quite nice to hear the band keep up that sort of continuity for an entire album, and it makes it easier to feel like a noticeably minimal track like this could be at home so early in the album. There are no drums here – just the dotted line of a synthesized bass rhythm. The song is once again big on melody, despite subverting its own hooks by stripping so much of the other instrumentation away. In its absence, haunting, reverb-drenched sounds and melancholy synth melodies flourish, like glowing algae in an abandoned swimming pool. Though it’s hard to make much of the abstract lyrics (which don’t feel completely out of left field or anything – they’re just a bit on the vague side), Coyne wrestles with the concept of light, normally a good and life-sustaining force, being stripped of the warm feelings normally associated with it. The shining sun illuminates a vacant and unfamiliar world, and there’s a sadness to his voice as he tries to figure out how to cope with it.
3. Try to Explain
The third track slows down the proceedings even further, but emphasizes the digitally-stacked vocal melodies even more, bringing to mind some of the musical pioneers that have been huge influences on the lips – most notably the psychedelia of latter-day Beatles and the harmonic studio magic of the Beach Boys. Neither group would have found themselves in such cold and alien surroundings, I’m willing to bet – you might think you’ve reached an eerie intergalactic outpost in some sort of dystopian video game future, where little droids take off in rockets all around you and everyone seems to be abandoning the surface of the planet before it collapses in upon itself. To have the music evoke this much sadness before a word is even sung is typical of the album, but there’s still a richness to the melody that makes you want to sympathize, particularly because this seems to be the most emotionally transparent of the album’s songs before it really goes off the deep end. Coyne sings of loving someone deeply and being rejected – as he puts it, “A love that explodes, convulsing your body/Your only hand extending in the deep”. As the person he gave a qaurter century of his life to disappears into the black oblivion, he begs her to explain her change of heart, yet knows he probably won’t understand it anyway. It’s intentional here that anything resembling a rhythm section or even conventional backup instrumentation has been sitting out for several minutes – you need to feel that empty space, and the weight of Coyne’s sad sigh, as he sings the saddest “Oh-oh-oh” that has ever been sung at the end of each chorus.
4. You Lust
This is the behemoth track that seems like it’s designed to get folks talking – a sort of lightning rod for questions about why the band made certain decisions that might otherwise be asked of the entire album. For starters, this sucker is thirteen minutes long. So I kind of came into it expecting it to pull the weight of at least two normal-length songs. Which… I hate to say it, but it doesn’t. But its length is very intentional, almost played as a cocky dare to the listener, asking us how long we can go on listening to the same synthesized riff again and again while more and more noise looms in the background. They don’t get to that part until maybe five or so minutes in – before that it seems structured like a normal song, with a verse and chorus, even if the chorus is whispered and detached from the main melody of the song. Lyrics like the opening line “You’ve got a lot of nerve, a lot of nerve to f*** with me” might have come across as defiant, even shocking on earlier Lips albums, but here they’re just sort of bitter, resigned to the truth that we’re all a bunch of selfish carnivores trying to claw our way to the top of the food chain. Wayne’s menacing whisper of “Lust to succeed!”, heard over and over, doesn’t seem to be concerned with sexual lust – though I guess that could be a smaller part of the bigger picture. It’s just about greed in general. And as much as I might get annoyed with the song not really growing and changing enough to justify its monster length, in some sense I have to admire its greedy audacity, eating up so much space without good cause to do so. I can remember a time when “The Sound of Failure” seemed needlessly long; then soon after it became one of my very favorite Lips songs. I can’t see the same happening with this one, but I will say that the outro, with its calming flutes and chimes, as a woman undergoes some sort of psychiatric debriefing in the background, reminds me very much of the gentle ending of that song.
5. The Terror
I honestly had no idea what the hell the lyrics to this song were until I looked at the lyric sheet today. All of the vocals in this song seem warped beyond recognition – you can still tell there’s a melody there, and that they’re singing in plain English, but the specific words all seem blurred. Listening closely enough to make out most of them could be headache inducing, because despite the laid-back trip-hop beat, this is definitely one of the album’s noisiest songs. Interestingly enough, the lyrics might seem innocuous if they had come attached to your typical Flaming Lips song – they’re full of the usual existential angst, wondering who controls love, and whether we can store up sunshine, and other things like that which make sense emotionally even if they’re deliberate nonsense on a physical level. The chorus melody actually leaps out of the speakers at me, almost in a moment of hopeful defiance. But there’s so much metallic debris suspended round it, in some sort of cosmic magnetic field, that the transmission only barely makes it through. Whatever instruments are generating these sounds, it seems almost like wires have been deliberately loosened and tangled, and sources of sound looped back upon themselves, creating nerve-rattling echoes and unsettling grinding noises, which seem to hover threateningly above and below the more “conventional” layers of sound that make up the song. I’m sure the band was proud of this achievement and all – it’s really interesting from a technical standpoint. But rare is the person who will make it all the way through this track without instinctively reaching for the volume dial to knock it down just a tad so that they can hear themselves think.
6. You Are Alone
One of the reasons I’ve never seen The Flaming Lips live is because in the few live recordings I’ve heard of the band, Coyne sounds painfully off-key. As wild and eclectic as their stage shows can be, that’s the main thing keeping me away. His vocals can be an acquired taste even on their best albums, but usually there they’ve got some sort of pitch correction going on (not terribly problematic in their case, because they use so many electronic elements in their music anyway), or else it’s just easier for him to sing when he’s not running around on stage. But this song? Ouch. It seems like they just rolled tape and let his pure, unfiltered, wavering voice sit there unadorned, which actually makes a great deal of sense given the feeling of utter abandon expressed in the song. But with so little to distract you from his repeated cries, it’s easy to see why this one won’t be a favorite to very many listeners. Even the little electronic “pings” and other sounds that make up the song’s “rhythm” seem deliberately lopsided, making the entire thing feel clumsy and off-center. It’s like hearing a Flaming Lips song exposed to months of radioactive decay, and I don’t say things like this to make fun of the band, but rather to do my best at describing the kinds of sounds they seem to be making quite deliberately. One semi-clever aspect of the song is how the other voices chime in, trying to reassure him after every “You Are Alone” that “You’re not alone”, but I would have liked to see this argument develop into something more interesting from both points of view. Still, I can imagine the voices of friends calling down the well to this person buried deep in his own despair, triggering an internal monologue about whether it’s worth him even bothering to reach for their hands, so in that respect, it’s interesting on a storytelling level.
7. Butterfly, How Long It Takes to Die
The final wisps of “You Are Alone” collide head-on with a pretty slick drum groove as this song gets underway – it’s one of the album’s longest at over seven minutes, yet the rhythm of it is seductive enough that it doesn’t face the same problems as some of the other repetitive tracks on the album. This was one of my early favorites, due to the way the keyboards would come chiming in at regularly intervals, giving the song an almost loungey sort of feel, deliberately contrasting with the harsh electric guitars, which are once again stuck doing that whole one-chord jam thing. “Catchy” isn’t even a good word to use here, but I suppose this track has the second strongest rhythmic hook to it of anything on the album, after “Look… The Sun Is Rising”, of course. It might even be deliberately echoing that song in some ways. You can pretty much figure out where Coyne is going with the lyrics based on the title – he’s singing about the long, slow death of a sunset and the long rebirth of the sunrise the next morning, the fleeting movements of whatever life is left on Earth, and how futile it all seems on the grand scale of the universe, which itself will also die one day. So yeah, pleasant stuff! One thing worth noting here is that the long track time is really quite deceptive – a good minute or two of this track is really completely unrelated to it, musically speaking, since after the groove fades out there’s this sort of soothing keyboard melody, with Coyne humming along wordlessly, which seems like it’s building up to the next song, only to be completely washed away as we descend into the deepest levels of Coyne’s own personal pretty hate machine. Suddenly a man’s reading off numbers and they’re echoing creepily against metallic surfaces, and the mood gets insanely claustrophobic as the next track bleeds in.
8. Turning Violent
If you’ve made it this far into the album, here’s where the band is most likely to give you a good case of the willies. It’s not that there’s anything particularly shocking going on here – at this point we’re used to the unholy, asymmetric, robotic sounds whirring away in the background of so many of these songs. But there’s a murky sort of stickiness to the inner workings of this one, as if you’ve descended into the bowels of a nuclear waste facility during a meltdown, and you know it’s gonna be a one-way trip. The band could have really worked wonders with such a nightmarish soundscape – instead they waste it on a frustratingly repetitive lyrics that undercuts the horrific realization that a man buried deep in his depression is beginning to lash out violently against his fellow human beings. “Turning violent… turning violet… ooohhhhhh… You aren’t violent… don’t turn violent… ooohhhhhh.” Literally, those are almost the entirely lyrics of the song. Now I’m not saying that I wanted Coyne to get graphic here, but it feels like a disservice when a sudden lightning bolt comes crashing in and the song gets really noisy about halfway through, that those lyrics just repeat, and there’s no new information being provided to get us all quaking in our boots. How could a group excel so much at creating truly scary music, and drop the ball on lyrics? Beyond the bleak atmosphere that may leave some more casual fans wondering where the guys that came up with “Do You Realize??” went, I think this may be the true downfall that keeps The Terror from becoming a formidable classic.
9. Always There… In Our Hearts
So, what becomes of this man, driven by heartache and greed and loneliness to turn into a complete sociopath? We may never know. The ending – which does seem to come early despite the way so many of these tracks have droned on for five minutes or more – seems to pull away from that close-up view of one man’s personal hell, in order to sum up the album’s philosophy in much more general terms. This will be a relief for some, no doubt, as the electronic whirring suddenly congeals into an up-tempo rhythm, and before long the same drums and guitars that brought the album’s opening track to a satisfying conclusion are back in full force. Even the numeric counting has taken on a noticeably calmer tone, whispering “1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4” with determination, adding momentum as the band builds up for a finish that doesn’t seem quite as big as what they might have been going for. This one ends the album on more of a neutral note, observing that the hate and fear and paranoia and vice will always be there in the dark depths of our hearts, but then so will the joy and love and all of the other elements that counteract them. All of these forces are seemingly indestructible. It’s an interesting thought, but not one that has really been demonstrated in the story so far, which has concentrated much more on what the absence of what I’ll call the “light side of the force” feels like. So I can understand if, as this mildly out-of-character track winds down, you’re left wondering exactly what the big deal was. I’m not saying they should have ended on a total downer or anything… I just feel like I’ve gotten whiplash from zipping back up to the surface so quickly after such a long, harrowing descent into madness.
Some versions of the album come with a “bonus disc” containing two tracks that, quite understandably, did not fit the mood of the album. Quite bafflingly, they seem destined to get more attention than must of the album, exactly because they’re so far out of left field compared to the rest of it.
Sun Blows Up Today
As if painfully aware that nothing on the album was likely to work as a radio single, the band came up with this surprisingly bouncy little ditty about squeezing in all of the joy and fun and sporting events that you can possibly manage to before the world ends. It’s refreshing to hear a fast tempo and an actual guitar riff from these guys, but the song seems so calculated to make up for what was purposefully absent on the album, that it comes across as a mere shell of a fun idea with nothing deeper to say. It doesn’t even work on a “so stupid you just have to smile” sort of level, like some of the Lips’ goofier songs do. Its optimism is played too straight for me to believe they’re doing it with a wink and a nudge. It just doesn’t sound authentic given the era of personal turmoil that it came out of… and what’s worse, it manages to be more irritatingly repetitive in three minutes than several songs on The Terror did in twice that amount of time.
All You Need Is Love
This one’ll get attention because it’s a Beatles cover, and because, up ’til the album’s release, it was only available on one of those USB sticks that came inside something edible. (Yeah, seriously.) Now you’ll probably consider what I’m about to say to be sacrilege, but I’ve never been big on the lyrics to this song. Yeah, I know, John Lennon was a genius and all, but I figured the feat accomplished by this song was in its ability to take blindingly obvious observations (“There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done”, and other such statements that make me think, “Naw, REALLY?!”), tie them all up with an insipid chorus, and fill it with enough bouncy and beautiful sounds, as well as interesting chord progressions and a bit of rhythmic playfulness, to make it irresistible regardless of the lyrics. I can’t knock it if it works, right? But, take away the cheerful backbeat and all of the fanfare, and strip it back to the dream-like haze of an aloof string arrangement and some bells and other sounds designed to help you drift off to dreamland, and the lyrics just lay there, naked and exposed, and not terribly exciting outside of their historical significance. I suppose the overall message of this song is a worthwhile antidote to The Terror, and an ironic cover of it could have possibly added some dimension to the album, but I don’t get the sense that Coyne is trying to be anything less than sincere here (nor is guest vocalist Edward Sharpe). So, despite the brief intrusion of a bizarre guitar solo, there really isn’t much to grab hold of here. I realize that you can’t pay tribute to a classic rock song by playing it completely straight, if you want to be taken seriously as an artist. I just figure there were better curveballs that the Lips could have thrown us with this one.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Look… The Sun Is Rising $1.75
Be Free, a Way $1.25
Try to Explain $1.25
You Lust $.50
The Terror $1
You Are Alone $0
Butterfly, How Long It Takes to Die $1.25
Turning Violent $.50
Always There… In Our Hearts $1
Sun Blows Up Today $.50
All You Need Is Love $0
TOTAL WITH BONUS TRACKS: $8.75
Wayne Coyne: Lead vocals, guitar, keyboards
Michael Ivins: Bass, keyboards, backing vocals
Steven Drozd: Drums, guitar, keyboards, backing vocals
Kliph Scurlock: Drums, percussion
Derek Brown: Guitar, keyboards, percussion, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.