Listening to a new Flaming Lips record is like waking up from a fever dream. The imagery is always vivid, and the soundtrack veers wildly between the lush and the outrageously chaotic. In the end, everything somehow manages to make sense, and follows an internal logic all it’s own.
Embryonic is no exception. Somehow, over the course of a 26 (!) year career, The Flaming Lips continue to top themselves. The Soft Bulletin (1999) was their first undeniable masterpiece. Ten years later, the band has released what I consider to be a serious contender for their best yet.
“Confused By The Hex” opens up Embryonic with some of the most thunderous sounds ever on a Flaming Lips record. The dual drum attack of Steven Drozd and Kliph Scurlock are the first things you hear.
The disturbing lyrics foreshadow what is to come. According to Wayne Coyne, the song was inspired by the 1974 film The Night Porter: “The themes of submission and obsession and cruelty and pleasure really put the zap on my sleep-deprived head,” he states.
Coyne describes the making of Embryonic as the “merging of low-fi distortion jams with hi-fi computer overdubs.” The five astrologically titled tracks sprinkled through the disc bear witness to this. The first, “Aquarius Sabotage” disrupts the established mood with the sound of breaking glass and utter chaos.
“Powerless” is Wayne Coyne’s guitar extravaganza. Despite his claims that he “is not a very good musician,” Coyne’s solo here is riveting. Sometimes it is not the technique, but the feeling that matters most. Like Neil Young, Coyne has feeling down in spades. Check out his guitar on “Worm Mountain” as well.
“I Can Be A Frog” features Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and is a childlike sketch. It creates one of those moods of wonder that the Lips are masters at inducing.
Of the 18 songs comprising Embryonic, “The Impulse” is my favorite. While I fully expect others to call this track indulgent filler, I love it. With a melody as sweet as anything in the band’s catalog, and treated vocals extolling the virtues of a positive outlook in all situations, this is an amazing piece of music.
The final triad of tunes form a suite of sorts. “Silver Trembling Hands” steadily builds a nervous feeling, until the joyous release of the chorus. The all-too knowing repeated phrase of “When she’s high” make the subject matter explicit.
The song segues into something called “Virgo Self-Esteem Broadcast,” which seems like a darker continuation of what had come before. In fact, it sounds otherworldly, as if the heroine of “Silver Trembling Hands” has gone beyond. In this context, the repeated disembodied chant of “This is the beginning,” becomes absolutely spooky.
The organic, tribal feel of Embryonic is never more pronounced than on the final track, “Watching The Planets.” Karen O returns to chant the lyrics “Killing the ego tonight,” with both Wayne and Steven Drozd.
What does it mean
To dream what you dream
To believe what you’ve seen?
(From “The Sparrow Looks Up At The Machine”)
Emerging from the fugue Embryonic puts me in, I am reminded of a favorite Frank Zappa quote: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”
Capturing transcendence in music is an even more elusive challenge. With album number twelve, The Flaming Lips have somehow managed do it. They have trapped lightning in a bottle.
Embryonic is a brilliant record.