Once I saw the video for “Do You Realize,” I was hooked. I copped The Soft Bulletin. I listened compulsively, obsessed with its sparkling, widescreen pop. From there, I ran through the Flaming Lips’ discography: Transmissions From The Satellite Heart and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots (the Lips were always a covert pop band), Transmissions and Clouds Taste Metallic (filled with brilliant alternate universe top 40 hits–and in the case of “She Don’t Use Jelly,” an actual top 40 Peach Pit hit.) Once you dug through the noise and lyrics about zoo animals and aliens, the tunes were there.
From The Soft Bulletin on, Wayne Coyne’s writing turned inwards, and the band started structuring their songs around their studio capabilities, as opposed to what worked live. Despite their stellar live shows, the Lips had become masterful studio outfit, with guitars beginning to disappear from their records. By Yoshimi, the Lips’ conception of the studio as instrument became readily apparent. Despite its reputation as a retread, At War With The Mystics, showed the Lips’ willingness to experiment with more overt prog influences, including suite-like song structures that included bizarre musical movements. Unfortunately, the song writing was largely weak, with the songs themselves bludgeoned by David Fridmann’s gaudy production, rendering the songs more interesting for their sonic dressings than lyrics or melodies.
Embyronic’s genesis stemmed from casual jam sessions, later sculpted into more cohesive overdubbed. The result is an enigmatic collection of songs, one galactic in scope and sound, even on the shorter numbers. For a band so strongly focused on grand statements about life and death just an album ago, it’s startling to hear the Lips spinning out abstracted space jams. Imagine if your weedhead uncle sobered up and discovered Jesus. Embryonic is the sound of him jamming with his old band, a rusty vaporizer smoking in the corner. The album rescues the Lips from the Styxian path of the NPR-approved alt rock band, positioning them as psychedelic astronauts exploring the dimensions of their practice room.
“Convinced Of The Hex” establishes the album’s tone and mood in under four minutes. A discordant bass bleeds sound until it congeals into a circular sonic assault, with Coyne chanting “That’s the difference between us” like it’s the secret to all world knowledge. From there Embryonic spills over with blistering dense waves of fuzz, stripping the last album’s glossy polish off and uniting the Lips’ present and past. The album incorporates the lush pop of The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi, tempering it with enough teenage noise and experimentation to keep things from getting soft. For every clamorous jam, there are gorgeous noise-flecked sketches like “If” and the sweet vocodered musings of “The Impulse” that ground the longer songs. As a long-time fan, it’s satisfying to hear Wayne Coyne and co. working with noise as a compositional element again, something they seemingly forgot how to do after Zaireeka. “Evil” is a test transmission from a satellite piloted by the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Miles Davis, coating a meditation on the nature of evil in white noise and angelic harmonies.
“Worm Mountain” is the heaviest song here, sporting Bonham-worthy drumming, lasergun zaps (cue Kanye: “Pew pew!”) and psych-pop disciples MGMT on backing vocals. “Silver Trembling Hands” is four minutes of trademark Coyne-ian weirdness, the tale of a girl who puts diamonds in her forehead–with a striking shift between the droning verses and the pseudo-jazz chorus, a juxtaposition of the fierce space rock that dominates the album and the symphonic pop of The Soft Bulletin. Embryonic is a song suite with no beginning or end, sprawling towards the stars from all directions. The clean, expansive immediacy of Bulletin and Yoshimi produced incredible music, but the elemental power of songs like “Watching The Planets” is a necessary remedy to the band’s previous excesses. Embryonic’s dense, visceral weirdness is bracing and fitting, the sound of 2009’s media overload summarized in two discs of brain-expanding material. If this had come out when I was in high school, I would have tried weed a lot sooner.