REVIEW: The Flaming Lips’ The Terror

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When the Flaming Lips released In a Priest Driven Ambulance, I was a trembling fetus nestled in my mother’s womb.  When I was nine, the band was radiating mainstream attention, but I didn’t know because no exceptionally cool third-grader brought The Soft Bulletin to show-and-tell.  And when I was 12, Yoshimi was battling the pink robots while I was battling… well, puberty.

It’s been thirty years since the band’s inception, and it never occurred to me that the Flaming Lips are getting old.

And how could it?  Last year the Flaming Lips’ collaborative album, Heady Fwends was one of my 2012 favorites.  In 2009, both Embryonic and the covers of The Dark Side of the Moon completely changed my perception of the Flaming Lips by rocketing out of pop and floating into an experimentally psychedelic galaxy of psychosis.  Seeing them live at Piedmont Park in 2012 was an even more electrifying experience than seeing them live at Bonnaroo in 2007.   Chronologically, everything they’ve done has been an acclaimed next step in a new direction— so when Wayne Coyne described the upcoming album as heroin new wave at a funeral for aliens, I was ready for abduction.

But during the slow wait for their upcoming album, The Terror, the Flaming Lips were featured in a Hyundai Super Bowl commercial, and hit me.  “They’ve passed their peak,” I thought to myself.  “The Flaming Lips are on the downward slope of their musical career.”  They were selling something to us on a commercial, and it wasn’t even theirs— and it wasn’t even art.  The self-proclaimed freaks were trying to sell us a car?  I couldn’t fathom it, and betrayal is a bitter drug.

But it wasn’t just the fact that they were selling Hyundai.  The irritatingly peachy song they used for it was a perfect fit for a car commercial— it’s the equivalent to Robin Sparkles’ “Let’s Go to the Mall” covered by indie-headaches, Passion Pit or Vampire Weekend.  “Sun Blows Up Today” is definitely the most uncharacteristic Flaming Lips song ever recorded.  My face contorted with grief as I saw a sneak peek of the commercial online, and with disgust as I saw it like millions of others on the television screen.  As a follower who once went full freak-out during a fleeting interaction with Wayne Coyne, I was writing off the Flaming Lips.

But as any true fan, I couldn’t stay away.  I couldn’t actually write off an album I was so recently certain would blow my mind into cosmic explosion.  No, of course I jumped to listen to The Terror as soon as I could.  It’s Flaming Lips!

And I’ve gotta say it.  Even though I don’t agree with the commercial, I also can’t say it directly affects the quality of their music.  Sure, “Sun Blows Up Today” might be as excruciating to endure as the sun actually blowing up, but guess what— it’s a digital-only bonus track that sounds nothing like the rest of the album.  We can handle this, we can disregard it, we can delete.  The commercial-ridden track, as well as any low expectation you have for The Terror, can and should be dissolved.

That being said, The Terror isn’t the best Flaming Lips album, or the second or the third.  What The Terror is, however, is a total eclipse of Flaming Lips ideology.

It’s almost like NASA told the Flaming Lips that they could finally live in outer space, but that each member must travel in their own separate spaceship.  And after each member is launched into the cold, dark blanket of stars and mystery, the Flaming Lips simultaneously realize in a sudden state of agoraphobia that space-travel isn’t what they had expected.  Instead, while hyperventilating into their spacesuits, the Flaming Lips become painfully aware that that life in space is like an eerie post-death experience of existence in an abyss.

The Terror takes fans in a totally different direction than previous Flaming Lips albums.  With its seamless structure, it both absorbs and isolates in an atmospheric experience that somehow soothes yet scares, and makes the listener completely aware of silence.

In other words, The Terror is pretty close to a parallel of Radiohead’s Kid A.

Kid A begins with the sorrowful “Everything In It’s Right Place,” balancing chaotic alien-like background noises against a slow rhythm.  The Terror begins with “Look… The Sun Is Rising”’s high frequencies, glitches, and smooth, echoing human vocals.

Where “Everything In It’s Right Place” feeds into “Kid A,”’s robotic lullaby of mechanical vocals, “Look… The Sun Is Rising” also leads into the hollow-sounding “Be Free, A Way” filled with cherub lingering vocals against short repetitive chops like a helicopter propeller.

Kid A peaks as “Kid A” becomes the sonic-storm of “The National Anthem,” while “Be Free, A Way” extends its likeness into “Try To Explain,” which then becomes the thirteen-minute peaking “You Lust,” spaciously spitting vocals repeating “Lust to succeed” between creepy, paranormal ringing-sounds.

“The National Anthem” then recovers into the most isolated and serene tracks, “How To Disappear Completely” and “Treefingers,” while “You Lust” spills into the most remote-sounding track, “The Terror” and then the schizophrenic “You Are Alone.”

Kid A picks back up after “Treefingers” with the The Bends-reminiscent “Optimistic,” and on The Terror with the higher-energy “Butterfly (How Long It Takes To Die),” similar to the tracks off Embryonic.

“Optimistic” then becomes “In Limbo,” which drowns the listener with waves of haunting harmony and vocals repeating “you’re living in a fantasy,” and then into the more electronic kick of “Idioteque.” On The Terror, “Butterfly (How Long It Takes To Die)” becomes “Turning Violent,” which hypnotizes the listener with distant vocals and close shaky, industrial sounds.

Closing in on the album, “Idioteque” transitions into “Morning Bell,” which repeats “cut the kids in half,” and into the melancholy dream-like, “Motion Picture Soundtrack.” Meanwhile, “Turning Violent” becomes the almost chanting, nightmare-like “Always There… In Our Hearts.”

Kid A ends in minutes of silence, while The Terror ends with a moment of echoing feedback.

Wayne Coyne may have said that The Terror is like a funeral for aliens, but I disagree.  Kid A is more like a funeral for aliens, but taking place on Earth.  The Terror is more like a funeral for humans, but taking place in space— mourning their own lives lost in a vacuum.

Outside of that vacuum and despite the commercial, The Terror echoes that the Flaming Lips haven’t begun the downward slope.  Instead, they’ve embarked on a haunting and sorrowful journey that I can only imagine depressed astronaut Elton John would completely empathize with.  It’s lonely out in space, man.

Amy Anderson is a Magazine Journalism major at University of Georgia. She enjoys reviewing music and film of all kinds, and hopes to add more to the experience of listening or watching by adding critical perspective and showing various sides to works that audiences love (or hate, or feel indifferent towards). As well, when writing features, she strives to offer a glimpse into the artist’s creative process or ideology through engaging stories or thoughts. Her goal is to offer audiences unseen insight on creative works while opening eyes to worthwhile music and art. Amy's current five favorite musicians— though it’s always in rotation— are Andrew Bird, Beirut, Björk, John Maus, and Milosh. Her "guilty" pleasure is Robyn— if you don’t like her, you’re probably just pretending.

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