The Flaming Lips - The Terror
Sonic brutality and lashings of existential dread!
Even by the quixotic standards of The Flaming Lips, The Terror is a strange affair, musically as prickly and uncomfortable as anything you'll hear this year, and so wracked with dread and disillusion that it's virtually challenging you to actively dislike it.
At every turn, Wayne Coyne seems to want to disabuse the listener of any comforting or uplifting notions. In the opening track "Look... The Sun Is Rising", this event - usually regarded as welcome evidence of the recurrent cycle of life, or at least observed with a sense of awed wonder and warmth - is characterised as the ghastly guillotine of nocturnal endeavour. The ensuing "Be Free, A Way" opens with the query, "Did god make pain so we can know the high that nothing is?". And the 13-minute electronic ooze of "You Lust" is periodically punctuated by a vicious, Gollum-like whisper of "Lust to succeed! Lust to succeed!". Coyne himself has described "Try To Explain" as "the sonic equivalent of Edvard Munch's The Scream". Another track is called "Turning Violent"; while at the album's centre, the title-track all but gloats over puny human insignificance: "We are standing alone/The terror's in our heads/We don't own the controls". It is not, you won't be surprised to learn, the world's greatest party album.
Nor are the various threads of disillusion sugared with the kind of sweetening melody that made "Do You Realise?", for example, such a joyous anthem. Initially begun by Stephen Drozd in an adjoining studio during time out from the arduous logistical problems of mixing last year's ...And Heady Fwends album, the music for The Terror is predominantly abstract electronic tones culled from old analogue synths like the Arp and Wasp, sculpted into brutal riffs and textures, low rumbling grumbles, whiskery synthscapes and keening pads, with any potential pleasantry summarily obliterated by harsh, discordant bursts of noise like those which grind home "The Terror". Amidst these unforgiving sonic surroundings, Wayne Coyne's frail falsetto is like a ghost trapped in a machine, struggling to bring sentience and emotion to the proceedings. At one point - I think it was during "Be Free, A Way", or maybe "You Are Alone" - his airily reverbed voice seemed like nothing so much as the chanting of disillusioned zen monks, coming to terms with a spiritually bleak prognosis.
As with most "difficult" albums, the more one listens, the more forgiving they become. Despite its unpromising title, the most welcoming track is "Butterfly, How Long It Takes To Die", which employs a gently undulating synth line and piano motif over the roiling abstract electronic noise bed, with just a few sparse guitar chords helping move things along. Its lyric recalls the Chaos Theory linkage of a flapping butterfly wing causing a tsunami: the almost imperceptible delicacy of the insect licking an eye is compared to the universe-shifting mechanisms of sunset and sunrise, a brief meditation on macrocosmic forces which, by the album's overall standards, seems almost joyous.
Not that it's allowed to divert the general direction of The Terror, which eventually comes to a suitably pessimistic conclusion in the deceptively-titled "Always There... In Our Hearts", which appears to harbour uplift, but turns out to be a final grim rumination about the uglier primal urges lurking in the human id, a litany of fear and pain, selfishness and domination, sorrow and sadness: "Always there in our hearts, there is evil that wants out". But all these aspects of our character, Coyne suggests, are part of the Faustian pact that makes our lives worth living, the peaks and troughs that save us from the crushing defeat of bland mediocrity - a final twist that enables him to conclude the album with a gymnastic volte-face: "Always there in our hearts, a joy of life that overwhelms, overwhelms".
Just what the world needs - an album about existential dread!
Given that musicians are, at their core, sensitive artists, there are times when we know we're creating things, and other times when we know the desire to create is engaged by some other ghost of oneself. I think our best records are more when we're surrendering, not trying to make things go a certain way. But maybe it's just the nature of artists that they go towards existential dread!
On this album there's a distinct lack of chord changes and the usual narrative structures of songs - was that just how it turned out?
Sometimes when making a record, it isn't that you know what you want, you just know what you don't want, and what you end up making the record from is what's leftover from the things you didn't want. So I wouldn't say I wanted this, I just didn't reject it. I absolutely love this record, but I don't know why we made it. It's kind of like we're hypnotised.
Are you a glass-half-empty kind of guy?
It's a bit like a drug experience: there's a time when you know you're going to get high, and there's a moment when you're just absolutely taken away, then there's a time when that moment is over, and you come down: you aren't really there for very long. A lot of things in life are like that. Especially love - you don't want to live without it, so you pursue it and try to create it, but the minute you feel as though you have it, it flips over and you start worrying, Oh god, what would my life be like without this? You're never without that anxiety.
INTERVIEW: ANDY GILL
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Rating: 7 / 10