The Flaming Lips never shy away from an existential dilemma. Their bittersweet sing-a-long anthem Do You Realize?, with lyrics like ‘everyone you know someday will die’, is testament to this. But that was 2002, and the Lips were knee-deep in the intricacies of their much-praised Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. Over a decade later, their thirteenth studio album The Terror continues to ponder such questions, yet it pushes a little deeper and ends up in a much darker place. Those of us who only visualise euphoric psych-pop-driven live shows whenever the band are mentioned might be surprised; The Lips have created what is essentially an experimental noise-rock album in which their pop-rock tendencies are only undertones. Yet, for some, losing one’s self in The Terror could just develop into a sort of semi-religious experience.
The Terror feels like a natural progression from 2009’s Embryonic – an album dotted with its own darker phases. Gone are the fuzz-laden guitar riffs, which sat in the foreground of that release. They’ve been replaced with hauntingly distant synthesizer tones, hypnotically subdued percussion, and even what sounds like a printer on Turning Violent. Frontman Wayne Coyne clings to his upper register throughout, purveying both vulnerability and contentment at will.
There’s a lingering sense of hopelessness though, which is amplified by lyrics like ‘We don’t control the controls’ (The Terror) and ‘Fear of violence / And of death’ (Always There, In Our Hearts). Yet, what really drives it home is the sound: it’s one which is desolate and filmic, and one which maintains a certain Jackson Pollock ‘throw it all on the canvas’ mentality. There’s something almost disembodied about it. It is so frequently saturated in echo and reverb that it appears to come from somewhere distant. It is this pseudo-distance which makes the album so haunting, yet also so semi-religious in its expression. What this leads to is something that feels tremendously organic, expressive, yet also quite therapeutic, even cathartic.
Song structures are more progressive this time around, with more than half of the tracks spanning over five minutes, and one – the moody You Lust – lasting for over thirteen. Individual songs also tend to purposefully self-destruct. The swaying, layered vocals of Be Free, Away give way to an ambient Aphex Twin-esque final section, and You Are Alone descends into an almost trancelike state driven by croaking synthesizers that nod to Kraftwerk’s Computer World. It’s all the more sonic beauty to lose yourself in.
You’d be forgiven for predicting that The Flaming Lips might go more ‘commercial’ on this record. The band recently starred in a Hyundai Superbowl ad and Wayne Coyne had his own lead role in a separate Virgin Mobile promo. Yet, The Terror will come as a shock to some: it is by no means The Lips’ most accessible work. It doesn’t rely on any bubblegum-pop hooks or sing-a-long melodies. Where its beauty lies is in its innate simplicity, hauntingly dark textures and emotional honesty. The Lips continue to innovate, stretching both their sound and its messages in order to frame questions of human agency – questions which continue to be universally relevant.