Wayne Coyne and friends have been at it for 30 years now, and, in that time, few bands have managed to be so inconsistent and unpredictable for so long. Even The Terror, an album that came together fairly quickly for The Flaming Lips and was released without much fanfare beyond being the first proper Lips’ album in four years, manages to present a different stylistic edge for the band after thirty years.
The Flaming Lips have been busy the past year or two, both personally and professionally. Last year they released a collaborative record made with the likes of Ke$ha, Bon Iver, Nick Cave, Yoko Ono, Tame Impala, and ‒ most notably ‒ Erykah Badu, whom Coyne got in a pretty ugly fight with over a pretty disgusting music video. Then The Flaming Lips played a ridiculous, exhausting 24-hour show that apparently put them in some sort of record book. Then, as Coyne was dealing with a split from his wife of 25 years, guitarist and creative force Stephen Drodz dealt with a drug relapse. All of that brings us to The Terror, an album that packs the band’s dark turmoil of the past few years into an unwieldy, uncomfortable fifty-five minutes.
The band opens with “Look…the Sun Rising,” which is arguably the most stylistically recognizable song on the record. Coyne’s lyrics aren’t buried and the song has an energy to it that would keep it from feeling out of place on Yoshimi… Yet, the next song, “Be Free, A Way” (one of many song titles on the record that could easily double as a @Horse_ebooks tweet) is foggy and spine-tingling. It’s not Flaming Lips-dark in the way of “Do You Realize??,” a truly heart-breaking song that is adorned with bright instrumentation to deflect attention from the sorrow of the lyrics. This is just flat-out dark, with little percussive elements crawling throughout the song and airy vocals that rob it of any sort of soul. It’s far from enjoyable and therefore a triumph.
“You Lust” is one of the highlights of the record, a strange and terrifying song that is probably the most cohesive, melodious song of the record. At ten minutes, the song is relentless in its use of chilling elements, repeating itself almost endlessly while adding new wrinkles slowly and subtly. As long and unforgiving as it is, it’s the song I came back to the most. Farther down on in the record is “You Are Alone,” the song around which Drozd and Coyne apparently constructed The Terror. Although its simplicity and bareness make such a revelation somewhat hard to believe, the dark, industrial sound and the themes of fear, loneliness, and doubt do allow the song to feel like something of a thesis statement for The Terror as a whole.
The Flaming Lips sound strangely refreshing in their exploration of utter darkness. As moody and hard to love as this music is (and aims to be), it contains the most clear, lucid music that the band has made in years. The fact that The Flaming Lips have been more playful than truly creative over the past few years admittedly makes such a designation come across as fairly faint praise. Yet such a full, sincere commitment to a sound that isn’t existential dread steeped in poppy sounds but rather true dread laid out in the bare makes for a record that is admirable in its directness and undeniably affecting.