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Music Review: The Flaming Lips – Embryonic

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After twenty-six years as a group, Wayne Coyne and friends are still making relevant music — as relevant as experimental spacey rock can be. With their twelfth studio LP, neo-psychedelia band The Flaming Lips have again received widespread attention for their work. Embryonic is the first double album the band has attempted and can be both inventive and indulgent, as Coyne openly admits that the two-disc format gave them the freedom to “sprawl a bit.” So sprawl they did. At eighteen tracks and seventy minutes, Embryonic is obscure and messy, yet sustains a clear concept overall.

In an interview with Billboard, Coyne stated that part of the reason he likes some of his favorite albums (exs. The Beatles’ White Album, Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti) is that “they’re not focused. They’re kind of like a free-for-all and go everywhere.” Using this as motivation for their double-LP, The Flaming Lips reveal their self-indulgence. This isn’t abstract art, and as such, Embryonic needs a level of focus. There is a definite theme found in the music, however the problem is that with so many tracks, some of them needless “freak-out vibe” jams (“Aquarius Sabotage”, “Your Bats”), the album wanders a bit off track and the concept is lost on all but those who try hard to find it.

As it’s title would suggest, Embryonic is about the unborn. As a concept album about the nature of humankind, human motivation, desire, freedom, and choice, The Flaming Lips offer a warning to the unborn embryonic being about the perils of life and the threat of evil (“Evil”, “If”, “Sagittarius Silver Announcement”). It’s a wonder that they are able to carry this theme through such a sporadic journey, and for that their efforts are commendable. Yet had the track listing been pared down and tightened up, the concept would so permeate each musical device that its impression would be inescapable.

“See The Leaves” is one of the first tracks on the record that doesn’t come across as an unfinished idea. Unlike most of the songs on Embryonic that feel like they are short bass riffs stretched into 2-3 minute trances, it’s complete in its expression. It’s lyrical content revolves around the circularity of life and the music contains more than just a singular chord repetition. Another track that exhibits multiple parts is the standout “Silver Trembling Hands.” Moving through a motivated bass line, it is one of the few songs to have a recognizable verse-chorus feel.

The crunchy distorted bass driven tracks are generally the strongest of the bunch, such as “The Sparrow Looks Up At The Machine” and “Worm Mountain” — the latter a collaboration with MGMT — and there are also some easily overlooked pieces that are much more subtle. One such song being “The Impulse”, a well disguised pop construct, that is uncommonly effective in its focus on melody by making the words of secondary importance. It’s at this point that it feels like the album is getting a bit lengthy. “The Impulse” would’ve made an excellent closer to the record, but songs such as “Silver Trembling Hands” and “Watching The Planets” have yet to be explored and it becomes unmistakable that a tightening up of the track listing would’ve been appropriate.

Embryonic doesn’t claim to be accessible. When is psychedelia ever accessible? It requires a training in experimental marathons to make it through this album in one sitting. Further, it takes many loops through the track listing to familiarize oneself with the convoluted structure. It’s not that the album is failure in whole, it’s just a bit overreaching. Many of the ideas are incomplete and are only faintly held together by a strong lyrical thread. While it’s entirely possible it was the intention of The Flaming Lips to use unborn musical snippets to elevate the concept of a yet unborn embryo, Embryonic doesn’t emerge having enough fleshed out parts.

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About Jonathan Kroening