Music Review: The Flaming Lips – The Terror
By Ryan Kozin
On April 1st, the Flaming Lips released their 13th studio recording—which has been described by Wayne Coyne as ‘bleak [and] disturbing’. Marked by a nebular haze of distorted and static synths, eerie harmonies, and distant and often falsetto lead vocals—emphasizing the psychedelic quality of the record—, The Terror is a strong concept album distinguished above all else by its impregnating sense of desolation.
The opening track, “Look The Sun Is Rising,” immediately establishes the discordant soundscape that holds steady throughout the album’s entirety. Likewise, the song’s lyrics are equally bleak and set the tone for those to follow: “Love is always something / Something you should fear / When you really miss her / Fear is all you hear”. It’s a sobering and painful awakening. It’s an acknowledgement. And this central theme of abandonment goes on to be addressed from multiple angles. “Be Free, A Way,” for instance, follows up with a sort of reluctant resignation—an acceptance to move forward into vast emptiness alone. In turn, “Try to Explain” is imploringly despondent. It’s the ultimate plea for the impossible despite awareness of its futility.
The sonic solemnness and limited melodiousness of The Terror may very well come as a surprise for casual Flaming Lips fans, but they will be in good company. As Coyne explained in a recent interview (courtesy of MusicRadar):
“Whenever we go into making a record, we do believe that we’re making ‘something’. There are ideas there, but at the same time, it’s also true that the best art is accidental—a happy by-product of something you weren’t intending to do.”
It’s been said that accidents are preferable to ideas in art for the very reason that Coyne is espousing—however, and as he clarifies, they are also inextricably linked. You have to aim before you can miss. This is exemplified beautifully on “You Lust”. The longest composition on the album, its length creates a roaming expanse that nicely hosts a spontaneous Love Supreme-esque chant—“Lust to succeed”—in place of a chorus. And, speaking to the spontaneity through which The Terror was born, the track encompasses excerpt recordings from an improvised jam the band had prior to recording that for whatever reason they were unable to recreate in a formal recording setting:
“It’s got a cool riff that started from a jam session, some of which was just a calamity. [It] only happened for a moment, but I recorded it on my phone as a video. I liked it, and I thought, ‘Let’s revisit that when this jam is over. We’ll look at the video and wonder what we were playing. But we could never really redo it, and we wound up using my phone. That’s why the track sounds so strange.”
However, despite the anger buried deep within “You Lust,” it’s the title track that is the most dissonant. Washy vocals, distorted guitars as well as the faint presence of a frantic upright bass-line collide to create a noisy climax worthy of its title. It’s a dark moment of reflection that gives way to madness.
Although experimental and electronic noises run solidly throughout the record, they are particularly haunting on “You are Alone,” where they are punctuated by eerie lead vocals again chanting the song’s title in a trance-like melodic daze. “Butterfly, How Long It Takes to Die” challenges “You Lust” as the most entrancing composition. Distant but driving percussion methodically propels the song towards its end amidst sporadically rhythmic guitar hits and pulsating pockets of reverberation. The last two tracks on the album—“Turning Violent” and “Always There… In Our Hearts”—complement each other in length and momentum as the relative tranquility of the former contrasts nicely with the atonal climax of the later.
In step with its central concept, there is no comforting pop accessibility to The Terror. It’s a dark, dissonant, and static orchestration. But the experimentalism of it fits nicely within The Flaming Lips’ discography in that it is a clear continuation of the more avant-garde direction they had taken with 2012’s Flaming Lips and the Heady Fwends (or, similarly, the dissonant but still melodic neo-psychedelia of 2009’s Embryonic). In its essence, The Terror offers listeners a stark cosmic soundscape to get lost within—which, while limited in terms of listen-ability, is quiet inviting for all those interesting in temporarily exploring an aphotic expanse of sound, ideas, and welcomed mistakes.