There’s an interesting snippet in the next issue of Uncut, when the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne talks about Portishead’s “Third”. “It got under my skin,” he says. “From the standpoint of being in a band, they do some fun production things, it’s pretty inspiring. I liked how they embraced more stranger elements of prog-rock, and Silver Apples-influenced drum loops and things like that.”
Re-reading this quote the other day, it helped crystallise a few ideas I’d been having about the new Flaming Lips album, “Embryonic”, and also about the self-titled debut album by Beak>, a new group featuring Portishead’s Geoff Barrow. Both “Beak>” and “Embryonic” are plainly rooted in a very loose, jamming aesthetic, and if “Third” betrayed a preoccupation with Krautrock and The Silver Apples, it has nothing on Barrow’s work here with Billy Fuller and Matt Williams (two more Bristol musicians, from Fuzz Against Junk and Team Brick respectively, acts in Barrow’s Invada stable who’ve never made much of an impact on me, to be honest).
The stated design of “Beak>” seems to involve 12 days of writing and recording last January, with all tracks “recorded live in one room with no overdubs or repair”. The results involve lots of pleasantly skewed old synths, rackety beats much indebted to Can and early Kraftwerk (I’m thinking “Ruckzuck”, specifically), and an often dank atmosphere, increased by one of the band occasionally moaning in the distance and, consequently, recalling the stentorian misery of Ian Curtis; “I Know” does this especially effectively, while being a rich Silver Apples nod, too.
Plenty more of the influences which threaded through “Third” are pushed right to the fore on “Beak>”, with Barrow clearly unencumbered by the vaguely orthodox songforms that Portishead still favour. “Ham Green” showcases his love of booming, staccato, stoner doom, while the uncharacteristically pretty “Battery Point” is reminiscent of someone like Mogwai’s more rippling, pastoral moments.
The overall feel is very off-the-cuff, and consequently it can wander off on some slightly lost trajectories from time to time. But the spontaneity and rough-and-ready nature of the whole operation also feels like a necessary palliative to Portishead’s somewhat lengthier – tortured, perhaps – working practises.
That’s a feeling which pervades the Flaming Lips’ “Embryonic”, too. If their recent albums have been, for the most part, over-wrought in a good way, “Embryonic”, according to Coyne, was conceived as a double album as a means of forcing the band to become more free and uninhibited. “I believe I was stuck thinking of us as being a group of reckless, sloppy freaks,” he says in some characteristically illuminating press notes, “and that, if we weren’t constantly trying to be more disciplined or more refined or more together, maybe our creative luck would elude us.”
“Embryonic”, then, is a bunch of generally untethered jams, again much in thrall to Can, The Silver Apples and so on, as well as a fair bit of electric-period Miles Davis. Again, as with Beak>, it feels like something the band absolutely needed to do, to escape from a certain closed perspective. But while Beak> very much seems to be an end in itself, there’s something about “Embryonic” that doesn’t quite gel.
As the title implies, it has an air of being a work in progress rather than a completed action. Of course, that can make for some very exciting and liberating music, and there are points amidst these 18 tracks where you sense the Lips have intuitively stumbled on something rather impressive: the glissandos and skronk of “Aquarius Sabotage”, say, where they manage to imbue general freeform chaos with the grandeur of their finest latterday records; the frail, stuttering guitar solo on “Powerless” that sounds like an attempt at Sonny Sharrock, possibly; the passage in “The Ego’s Last Stand” which drives rather than drifts, and the similarly pulsating “Silver Trembling Hands”.
But then again, there are plenty of other points where the pieces sound less dynamic and exploratory, more straightforwardly unfinished (“Your Bats”, playing now, for instance). It’s frustrating, not least because it suggests that the Flaming Lips, nowadays, might be more effective if they erred on the side of conservatism: that perhaps their greatest strengths are being able to take semi-outré psychedelic ideas and transform into songs saturated with melody, ambitionn and accessibility. Though it galls me to admit it, I might like “Embryonic” more if they’d worked on these tracks more and made them more conventional.
A lot to absorb, though, and it’s a record that demands to be played again and again, even when it’s not totally working.