The Flaming Lips – The Terror (2013)

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You have been tranquilized against your will, and your limp body has been dumped deep in the dry, hot desert. You awaken to find yourself stranded and alone. You are probably going to die, and you have come to terms with that fact. The Terror is the music that plays behind all of this.

It will be easy for long time Flaming Lips fans to determine if they’re going to need to explore this one or not. If Embryonic proved too much of a chore for them, then The Terror is going to be even more trying. For those who found the previous album refreshing, then this one may prove to be an intriguing new challenge. This certainly isn’t The Flaming Lips of Yoshimi, but that was also eleven years ago, a veritable lifetime in terms of a band’s age.

It’s not that The Terror sounds completely unlike any Flaming Lips album before. All of the elements are there – distorted drums, aged synths, fragmented guitar, and wavery, childlike vocals: all Lips hallmarks – but it’s the arrangement that makes the album feel so startlingly different. It’s so spartan. Unrecognizable samples loop in the background, layered on top of each other, and the barest of beats propel songs forward. Wayne Coyne’s vocals provide most of the songs’ melody, wafting in heavy echo, yet still sounding so lost.

And that’s the overwhelming atmosphere of The Terror. Loss, despair, anguish. Hopelessness abounds throughout the 54 minute runtime. Heck, the protagonist even desperately asks “Am I alone?” and is rewarded with the callback answer that, as the title of the song suggests, “You Are Alone.” This isn’t the stuff the Lips are going to be using to back car commercials, in other words.

It’s never more apparent than in the fact that they released a non-album single in the form of “Sun Blows Up Today” for use in Hyundai’s Super Bowl Sunday ad. It’s a song whose frantic double-time drums and, despite the title, sunny disposition come as a shock (and, frankly, sounds like a bit of a piffle after such grand heaviness) at the end of the album – for those who buy the digital version, at least. It’s a move that mimics a what the record labels pulled a couple decades back.

Some out there may remember when there were CD-only bonus tracks, songs meant to help fortify a relatively new format against long-ingrained formats like vinyl and cassette. In the case of The Terror, and specifically for iTunes, not only do buyers get “Sun Blows Up Today,” they also get a lengthy album mash-up track “We Don’t Control The Controls” by Dan Deacon weighing in at almost 15 minutes, and most interestingly, “shuffle-ready” versions of the songs. American CD buyers get, well, the nine tracks that make up The Terror and that’s it. Elsewhere gets a bonus 3″ CD single with “Sun…” and the Lips’ cover of “All You Need Is Love” with members of Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeros.

It’s that shuffle-ready version that offers up the album in such an interesting way. As the Lips intend it to be presented, The Terror is meant to be a singular experience, each song segueing into the next in a nearly seamless way. As such, it’s an overwhelming, almost exhausting experience, the despair almost overbearing but, like the appeal of being alone, bleakly beautiful. Some might see the shuffle-ready versions of those songs, lacking their interstitial sound collages, as only minor edits to the originals, but they change the character of the album experience in a significant way. What was, in essence, and audio-film, becomes just a collection of dark songs. It loses the coherence that made it feel so important. The music is no less impressive, but it is less monolithic.

It’s not that the Lips have done anyone a disservice this way, but many listeners may be drawn to the immediacy of the individual tracks rather than one long 54 minute album track. One can only hope that they’ll someday opt for that version and rediscover the album as it is meant to be heard — as one long beautiful downer of an album.

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Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson has contributed to Blogcritics, and maintained a series of stand-alone sites including Known Johnson, Everything is a Mess and others. He studied both creative writing and then studio art at Arizona State. Contact Something Else! at
Tom Johnson
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