Just what in hell is going on here?! That was my reaction back when I had my first crack at records like In The Court Of The Crimson King, Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Tarkus.
Art rock. Art… Rock. I’ve always thought that was such a funny category. An odd combination. As if there’s no art to be found in a distorted guitar chord or the loud crack of a snare drum. Or is it that art can’t be simple?
No matter? I’m here neither to resolve that issue not stir up a debate. After all, art rock is to rock ‘n’ roll what fusion is to jazz. Please move along, there’s nothin’ to see here. Honest.
Instead, I’m here to celebrate the next wave of art rock (or whatever we end up calling it), championed by The Flaming Lips. When I first heard The Soft Bulletin, the “art rock” light did not flash on. They seemed like a rock band with a Bonham-influenced drummer, quirky lead singer , and some good ideas. Then Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots showed up and, while devoid of songs about ArmadilloTanks, there were plenty of oddities. It was around that time that I saw an incredible Flaming Lips performance on the television show Austin City Limits. Dancers dressed in animal costumes, great original tunes, and covers of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” and Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” What’s not to love?
Now: At War With The Mystics. Forget the labels because this band has become a musical island. They are alone. Nobody else sounds like this (and sure, maybe nobody wants to). This is a kind of art rock without the pretense. No symphonic themes. No orchestral leanings.
What The Flaming Lips manage to do is to create art by instead drawing from the history rock and pop music: Zappa and The Beach Boys (the vocals on the opening track “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song”), Prince (“Free Radicals,” lead and background vocals), Syd Barrett (the atmosphere of “My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion”), The Beatles (wobbly mellotron-ish instrumentation opening “Vein Of Stars”), Pink Floyd from the era of Syd (“The Wizard Turns On… The Giant Silver Flashlight and Puts on His Werewolf Moccasins,” “Pompeii Am Gotterdammerung”), Bowie (“Haven’t Got A Clue”).
Now of course, these are some of the things that I hear on this record. Your experience will probably differ except for this: whatever you perceive coming from the tracks on At War With The Mystics, you’ll have to admit that the end result is really unlike anything you’ve ever heard before.
Cynics love to parade around that “nothing new under the sun” business. Good for them. I hope they enjoy their small world.