In some ways, I’m glad.
I’m glad because this is the first Flaming Lips release since Embryonic that does not sound like a novelty project. A brief recap of what happened in between: an entire cover of Dark Side of the Moon, a Valentine’s Day single that was made practically impossible to listen to and simultaneously made the quadra-disc format of Zaireeka seem normal, an album full of collaborations that could have (admittedly) benefitted from less guests and more music, music released in ways that would probably give you diabetes, and songs that try to beat Bull of Heaven at their own game. Suddenly, it seemed like all those things that made them a great live act – the laser hands, the bubble-crowd surfing, the confetti – were just gimmicks to distract from the fact that the Flaming Lips have been less interested in making music and more interested in being interesting.
But ultimately, The Terror isn’t very good. It sounds like Embryonic, but unfortunately this one does not have the added benefit of sounding new and exciting as Embryonic, nor does it share the same scope, either in style or theme. It might be a harsh truth, but Wayne Coyne’s strengths are not in his melodies. With Embryonic, this was not an issue: his lyrics tackled the world, and the recurrent “People are evil,” was the closest universal truth he’s given us since the existentialism of “Do You Realize??” Moreover, if there was ever a moment when Wayne Coyne was uninteresting, he could always just step back and let the instruments do the talking. Here, the lyrics feel like placeholders (especially troubling since the album was inspired by personal turmoil experienced by the band at the time; Wayne Coyne’s separation with his better half of 25 years and Steven Drozd’s (apparently exaggerated) relapse into drugs) and the instruments don’t talk enough.
Or, as Drozd articules, “with Embryonic, we jammed and then turn those jams into songs. This time, we’d record a couple sounds and then say, “Hey, let’s turn a couple of sounds that we like into an entire song.” There’s not a lot of songs that have chord progressions. A lot of them are just droney moods that are sustained for two or three minutes.” On some of these tracks, this repetition works. “Look…Sun Is Rising” rides on a skeletal riff, soon joined in by the heaviest drums the Lips have ever recorded in their tri-decade long career, and then sadistically-stabbing guitars join the fray. On the other hand, sometimes it doesn’t. The album’s centerpiece, “The Lust,” the only track that features a guest (Phantogram), is way too long for its own good. When the muscular riff that drives the track forward is replaced by the faux-menace of the whispered “LUST TO PROCEED,” it’s a hugely sour moment that occupies a great chunk of the 13-minute track. Furthermore, while the ambient coda is a nice break from the harsh sounds, it’s also nowhere near as melodic or interesting as its 3-minute runtime warrants.
I will however, say that The Terror does have an advantage that other Flaming Lips records don’t: this one has the feel of an album. The steady pulse of the opener is carried over and drives “Be Free, A Way” (good bass). There’s a barely-materialized riff floating around in “Try to Explain” that comes up later in the “You Are Alone,” which has no problem becoming “Butterfly (How Long It Takes To Die).” Meanwhile, despite closer “Always There…In Our Hearts” being a striptease with its repeated countdowns over and over in its intro (we’ve been conditioned by “Race for the Prize,” “Do You Realize??” and “I’m Working at NASA on Acid” to expect some sort of euphoric explosion, but instead, the track essentially becomes “Look…Sun Is Rising” with a different set of lyrics), but at least the circular narrative adds to the album’s structural integrity.
But there’s nothing here that I would return to, regardless of how it works as an album. In other words, this is to Embryonic what At War With the Mystics was to Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Great cover though.