The Flaming Lips Keep Right On Terrorizing Mainstream Rock
The Flaming Lips performing at Free Press Summer Fest 2010
Photo by Marco Torres
Next Tuesday, Flaming Lips will release their long-awaited new album, The Terror. Though the band has been constantly busy with side-projects over the last several years to tide their freaky fans over, The Terror marks their first "official" entry into their primary discography since 2009's Embryonic.
The album made its live debut at SXSW last month, where the band performed the new in its entirety to an unsuspecting audience of 15,000 at Austin's Auditorium Shores. Having been a part of that crowd myself, I saw the confusion on the faces of just about everyone in the audience who wasn't a hardcore Flaming Lips fan.
I even got a text from a friend who was also in the audience, asking me what happened to the Flaming Lips. The Terror is a dark, challenging record of intense psychedelia and ambient soundscapes.
The stage show reflected that, forsaking the confetti, the giant laser hands, and the hamster ball of recent years in favor of a creepy baby with streams of tentacle lights wrapped around front man Wayne Coyne. Needless to say, casual fans went in expecting one thing and got another entirely, and many weren't happy.
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The Daily Texan, UT's student newspaper, even produced this graphic breaking the whole thing down, labeling it a "failed concert" and "horrible, grating, atonal, discordant dirge-like racket." The writer admitted to not being a fan of the band to begin with and using this concert as a test. Whoops.
Personally, I loved the show as much as I love The Terror, as well as everything else the band has done. It's not inferior, it's just a new stage for an adventurous and constantly evolving band.
In the interest of examining the Lips' constant evolution, though, let's take a look backwards. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the band's 1993 breakthrough album, Transmissions from the Satellite Heart.
Transmissions from the Satellite Heart produced the band's first hit, "She Don't Use Jelly," and introduced the band to the public at large, including a then-orange-haired Wayne Coyne wearing a green T-shirt (a far cry from the typical white leisure suits and poofy gray hair most associated with him with today). The song was quaint by today's Lips standards, featuring a heavy alternative-rock guitar riff and almost but not quite fit into radio rock terms of the day.
In terms of Coyne's voice and a little bit of the tone, it's kin to their eventual electronic-influenced Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots era, but it's not quite there yet. This could be said for much of the album. Satellite Heart, in truth, is a bit all over the place, and reflects a wide variety of sounds the fledgling band was attempting.
Take "Oh, My Pregnant Head," for instance, with its melancholy blues-rock by way of early Pink Floyd. It's the kind of track the Lips would probably never write today, but it shows that the band were really still figuring out where they wanted to go with their sound. In all honesty, you can still hear traces of this today, but not nearly so blunt or derivative.
It's important to note now that Satellite Heart came out after the Flaming Lips had already been a band for ten years. But in that first decade, they had made little headway in figuring themselves out and had gone through a number of lineup changes. Their sound had been dense and far too experimental and weird to make a connection with the public. That's why Satellite Heart was so revolutionary in their discography when it was released.
Incidentally, and perhaps indicative of why the Lips would never write an album like Satellite Heart again, it also marked the last album where Steven Drozd -- today a multi-instrumentalist and almost the band's second front man -- switched from simply being a drummer to being an actual force within the band's structure. By Clouds Taste Metallic two years later, he was playing keyboards, guitar, and piano along with drums.
So here we are 20 years later and it's ironic that we're celebrating both the release of The Terror and the anniversary of Transmissions from the Satellite Heart. Where Satellite Heart saw the band making progress in coming down to Earth, 2009's Embryonic saw them drifting ever closer to space and The Terror sees them having set up and established a colony on Mars.
Therefore, The Terror is just as revolutionary an album for them. The transformation has been completed once again and the band has officially shed their mortal coil, eviscerating the public's ideas of them as being an accessible or even fun.
If Satellite Heart indicated they were ready to make contact after years of being too far up in the clouds, The Terror is indicating that they've made all the contact, had all the mainstream success, and made all the money that they want. They're ready to become an experimental tour de force again, moving back into music that's too out-there for anyone but the most dedicated Flaming Lips fans. It's the legacy they were always destined for, but up until now had skirted.
For that I applaud them, because they could have made another Satellite Heart or even another At War with the Mystics and simply coasted. They could have run entirely on the fumes of their previous successes and become a nostalgia act for those who bought Yoshimi on day one in 2002, but they've instead chosen to create the music they want to make and to continue to excite and even scare their fans after all these years.
So while I wish Satellite Heart a happy birthday, I'm here for the now. The Terror is the now and as long as it's brilliant and still aggravates the hell out of those criticizing from the perspective of "I like the Flaming Lips cause I heard 'Do You Realize?' in a commercial one time," I'm completely down with it. Rock on and let the freak flag fly, Flaming Lips.
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