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The Flaming Lips Embryonic Review & Wayne Coyne On Its Birth
The Quietus , September 25th, 2009 12:58

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Wayne Coyne on Embryonic

We had declared to ourselves that we would make a double record. I remember even as far back as 2006 thinking "We should make a double record.” I don’t know why, but once we declared it . . . well, it seemed like a cool, different approach to making a record. I think I perceived it as a way of allowing us more freedom . . . more room to sprawl . . . more room to get lost . . . more room to just let the music go where it wanted to . . . But those are just clichéd little phrases. After all, weren’t we already free? We are The Flaming Lips and the world has allowed us to do whatever we wanted. So what need did we have to become more free? I don’t know . . . I believe I was stuck thinking of us as being a group of reckless, sloppy freaks and that, if we weren’t constantly trying to be more disciplined or focused or more re ned or more together, maybe our creative luck would elude us.

So, yes, more free!!! Now at last to be free from the discipline and focus. Free to fail . . . Free to lose ourselves. In the past, “more free” maybe meant that we would write some songs and then see what the sonic possibilities could be as we freely explored stuff in the studio. But even Soft Bulletin tracks like 'The Gash', 'Suddenly Everything Has Changed' and 'The Observer' were charged, spontaneous moments. They weren’t really songs we had written and arranged. The Yoshimi and Mystics albums both had tangents of intuitive creations. So I started to think, "Why don’t we just go to the spontaneous, creative epiphany?” That elusive “unknown” at the beginning of making a record instead of stumbling upon it somewhere in the middle.

But what is the “unknown”? Well, we didn’t know you see, we had already been embracing whatever anarchy was happening anyway. It’s the way I believe all artists break through to new things.

So going into 2007 and 2008, any “new” stuff we were doing was pretty much done from some demo type song on a Pro-Tools kind of set up. This is still not easy for us. But it was a way of creating and moving forward that we had become comfortable with.

BREAK IN THE STORY

Mid-summer 2008: Steven buys a house across town and puts his old house on the market. He leaves his recording equipment there (at his old house) and one evening we are working on a song and are not getting too far. We collectively decide to set up Steven’s drums in the now empty living room and bang around on them. (Steven has a couple of young kids and we could never really make too much noise into the night.) I grabbed the bass and we set up one microphone and proceeded to jam. This meant I (Wayne) would  nd some simple groove, one or two notes, and Steven would skillfully play loud, spazzy beats around it.

And it was fun for a little bit . . . but it quickly disintegrated because I am not a very good musician and my knowledge of scales and chord changes is limited. Our next recording session (at Steven’s old, unsold house) was delayed for whatever the reason and Steven, in the meantime, had taken this messy jam track, found a couple of groove moments, stuck them together on his computer and put a cosmic sounding Fender Rhodes chord sequence over the top of it. Neither Steven or I thought too much about it and moved on. A couple of months later (his house still not selling), we re-listened to this very spontaneous jam track and we both remarked . . . ”Hmm . . . that’s interesting” . . . To our delight, the strange session we had done earlier now revealed an energy and freshness we had not noticed at the time we created it . . .

This is a weird dilemma . . . but a true one. The dilemma is this It is hard to play music and listen at the same time . . . Yes . . . Now it is late Feburary and Kliph has joined Steven and me. He’s playing drum kit. Sometimes he and Steven are both playing drum kits. Kliph is also playing congas and shakers and even occasionally singing and screaming in the background. By March, Michael is engineering the sessions, but also sitting in on these group vibe ensemble recor dings playing guitar and synths. So we began to create little unrehearsed moments. We used whatever psychic intuition erupted. (The rest of these was 'Aquarius Sabotage'.)

There were plenty of long jams that were not rewarding, but there were enough little segments that were surprisingly hypnotic and “druggy”. We remarked, more than once, how the little “segments” were best if we didn’t change too much of their musical possibilities. We were trying to keep them "embryonic". This concept so guided our sound that we began to like the idea of calling the record Embryonic and, with our usual over-confidence, we hurried to capture as much as we could.

We did not think too much about what we were doing or what we would become.

We felt as though we had found a vehicle that could, at last, take us to a place that was “more free”. It could take us deeper into the dark woods than ever before.

Could we find our way back? Probably not . . . It could take us beyond our known universe. Could we find our way back? I hope not!!! Good . . . Then let’s make a double record before we turn back into the insecure humans we know we really are, for at the moment we’ve become fearless beasts with a wicked new machine . . .

FAST FORWARD IN THE STORY

Double albums usually fall into a couple of categories . . . indulgent, egotistical or lazy . . . They are almost always summed up as “would have made a better single album if only the artist would have focused themselves, edited themselves, and got down to work and trimmed the fat” So yes . . . I think all of this is possibly true of our latest creation that we are calling Embryonic. I would say that we, in the course of making this record, did, on all levels, completely lose our way . . . and that we surrendered to every impulsive whim . . . and that almost every song we intended to do, initially, failed. And now we stand before you not knowing what we have done.

It is kind of like waking up in the morning with blood on your hands and wondering . . . “What did we do last night?” Had we become some sort of werewolves and killed some innocent bystanders? I fear we have. But maybe the bystanders were our former selves . . . Our more crafty or calculated selves. Our less brave selves . . . Our less spontaneous selves. If those are the ones who have been mutilated maybe they got what they deserved . . .

We wanted to be more free . . . the freedom without the discipline or restraint. Fuck yeah . . . Either way it’s too late . . . the damage has been done.

Embryonic - Track by Track

1. Convinced Of The Hex

It literally hurts your ears to get them used to this level of brightness at first. Squalls of guitar screech and then give way to a shuffling Jaki Liebezeit beat and Wayne Coyne sounding like Damo Suzuki singing ‘Vitamin C’. This was the first track recorded for the new album with Steven Drozd and latest recruit Kliph Scurlock on double drums and Wayne on aqueous bass. Trimmed down from some epic length or other.

2. The Sparrow Looks Up At The Machine

At first it’s tempting to think that this review copy has been left unmastered so that if it gets leaked the finished copy will still be ready for the release, like with Sounds Of The Universe by Depeche Mode or what have you but a glance at the credits reveals that it was recorded by the whole band, Mercury Rev producer Dave Fridmann and Scott Booker. They’ve purposefully gone for an ultra acidic, bright, over compressed sound. But even from the beginning it’s clear that this is no 4:13 Dream or No Line On The Horizon where a multitude of sins are hidden by loudness.

3. Evil

The melancholic and shimmering synths call to mind The Soft Bulletin era Flips or the strange, junior Radiophonic sounds from informative children’s programmes of the 1980s. Coyne’s vocals show him at his most fragile (or tune deprived depending on your perspective), as he plaintively sings “I wish I could go back, go back in time…” The otherworldly melancholia makes for an exceedingly bold choice for a third track: is Coyne harking back to a time when his band weren’t wacky hamster ball festival crowd showmen? It’s already looking as if Embryonic is a record that’ll shed the casual fan.

4. Aquarius Sabotage

Insane electrified Alice Coltrane-style freakout with sunbursts of harp and Chick Corea keyboard disfigurement. It’s over too soon but such is the way with LSD-damaged punk rockers, one guesses. The whole thing has the feel of a track from On The Corner which collapses after three minutes due to several key players corpsing.

5. See The Leaves

Gothic post-punk with the kind of back line that wouldn’t be out of place on a belter by The Fall on Hex Enduction Hour or Perverted By Language. Amazingly it appears the whole album is going to sound like this. Compression snatched out of the hands of the abusers and turned into a psychedelic tool.

6. IF

Unfortunately not about the film that features Malcolm McDowell on the roof of his public school shooting his peers but one of those slightly mawkish and uncomfortable ballads about mortality that Coyne does. Just his falsetto and organ accompaniment, you have to admire its nakedness.

7. Gemini Syringes

Another slowie, but this one’s a goodie with echoing vibes and distant, lazy vocals, reminiscent of some of the more introspective moments from In A Priest Driven Ambulance. It opens with vocal samples of mathematician Thorsten Wörmann, who’s present throughout explaining mathematical equations explaining polynomial rings. Whatever they are. His words add a peculiar contrast to the otherwise beguiling atmosphere. The effect is something like being an opiated astronaut, stuck forever in orbit with no hope of returning to the earth that floats past your vessel’s window… but not really caring.

8. Your Bats

Another jam-based track with immense drums, a cello and what sounds like someone rubbing the rim of a wine glass. There’s an edge to it, though, in the gloom of the strings and again, this fizzy production – appropriate given that Coyne claims the track is about the acceptance that human nature is disturbing. Given that so many believe the “jam” is a way of achieving some form of enlightenment, the Flaming Lips’ grim realism is most welcome.

9. Powerless

As the title suggests, this is a melancholy lament suffused with helplessness. It's as if the wide-eyed wonder and moment of clarity of ‘Do You Realize?’ has been succeeded by a slump. Lazy yet affecting jazz punk guitars round things off.

10. The Ego's Last Stand

It’s almost as if French lounge electronica act transferred to being a live band and then decided to rock the fuck out at demo stage. Wayne Coyne, if his word is to be trusted, doesn’t take much in the way of drugs anymore and never really did in the first place (he seems to have been the relatively ‘normal’ one out of his siblings) but one of his talents is in being able to recreate that woozy, lysergic, confused feeling through musical quirks alone.

11. I Can Be A Frog

You can see that Warner must be a little bit worried about this album given that they’re billing this as a joint venture between the Flips and Karen O — really, this is just Wayne Coyne’s demented zoomorphism fantasy with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ lady making animal noises in the background.

12. Sagittarius Silver Announcement

Another track that makes much of choral vocal arrangements that call to mind their take on ELO’s ‘Mister Blue Sky’ via their own strange song about human slaves in an alien mine, 'The Gash'. The “yes yes yes” chorus sounds like a joyous outtake from the mortality-examining ‘Feeling Yourself Disentegrate’, but this time there’s more of a feeling of doubt; more insecurity in the human condition as distorted vocals say, hopefully, “we can be like them, we can be free”. It ends with a sound like a rasping, human breath of a man desperate for just a few minutes more life to try and make sense of it all . . .

13. Worm Mountain

. . . which leads into this collaboration with MGMT. These two bands were made to work together, and hopefully on the next album we’ll see them working with Super Furry Animals and the Two Jeffs, Wayne and Lynn. There’s a rumbling bass, and a ping that sounds like the submariner’s worst nightmare, the hard ping of the enemy’s sonar at close quarters, with no time for evasive manouevres. It ends at five minutes in strings for a watery lament.

14. Scorpio Sword

A lot of these songs are little more than acid cleansed sketches but are no less for that. The internet is rife with talk of this being a concept album about the signs of the Zodiac and the positions of the of the planets, and this one of six specific references to astrology that might help to bear this out. But does it actually matter what’s going on inside Wayne Coyne’s unusual noggin when we’re coming toward to the end of such an unusual record? This is one of the shortest tracks here: just two minutes of drily produced noise, displaced rhythm, and the final prickly-heat soothing flourish of harp.

15. The Impulse

Ah, The Vocoder! Just as everyone else in the whole world is getting busy with autotune, The Flaming Lips decide to discover the vocoder. This is why they are ace, you see. They’re like the anti-10cc. With an inverse Cher on vox.

16. Silver Trembling Hands

Another Brainticket brain scrambler. Noggin-scorching washes or harp and an uptempo Neu! beat. Each bright synthetic stab of this track sounds like God carelessly tugging at your heart strings.

17. Virgo Self-Esteem Broadcast

We don’t know what makes the spatial synth stab that opens this track is, but we want one. Our mathematician attempts to destroy our ego and allow us to be reborn. “This is the beginning”, he intones. Are Flaming Lips trying to exorcise their attempts at becoming a relatively mainstream band over the past ten years? It’s a fascinating, minimal track, just that eery synth, a distant sounding neo-Gregorian chant and ambient radio chatter. It certainly feels like a primordial oomska from which some brave new form might be born.

18. Watching The Planets

The closer is one of the stand-out tracks here with Karen O rejoining the ranks for backing vocals. A rousing stomper that sounds like it’s being broadcast in from the fleeing diaspora of some once-massive civilization.