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The Flaming Lips' 'The Terror' Reviewed

For years, the Flaming Lips have accustomed us to triumphant songs about death, decay and dying, empowered by an avalanche of confetti, balloons and bombastic feel-good musical fireworks. It was fun for a long time, but they have just dropped their new album, ‘The Terror’, and it is a complete different animal. Here’s what multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd said to Pitchfork last February, when talking about it: ‘The Terror is this internal feeling you get that you and everyone you love is going to die. Everything in your life might be good, but there’s still this notion…that there’s more pain and suffering to come down the road.’ Oh, so it’s ‘Do you realize?’ all over again?… Well, not really, …not at all. The Flaming Lips could have been this arena-rock band filling stadiums after stadiums with confetti-cannon-mood-uplifting pop songs and Wayne Coyne’s giant hamster bubble, but they chose not to. They could have made another college-radio-pleaser album, turned into another musical years later, but instead they made ‘The Terror’, a hard-to-get-at-the-first-listening album. If they have always contemplated their mortality with an abrupt honesty – everyone knows the famous ‘Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die’ line – they have now traded the amusement-fair cotton ear candy for some really dark and sour brain pill.


And I must admit it, after listening to ‘The Terror’ for the first time, I wondered, ‘is that it?’… This long, depressing, lamenting thing, slowly falling in limbo is the new Flaming Lips’ album? It sounded so monochromic, so uniform, and I couldn’t remember any song! The whole album actually works like a long atmospheric song, going through multiple phases, lost in a cosmic exploration. It’s an oddity, a spatial oddity, a new age symphony, in continuity with what they had already started with their last album ‘Embryonic’, full of post-apocalyptic soundscapes, choral voices buried in electronics, spacecraft ambient noises, and desolated cries singing depressing stuff such as ‘I turn to face the Sun/We are still standing alone/At last we’ll sing of the terror/It helps us hold the controls’.


The music is all trembling, oscillating, krautrocking, throbbing, pulsating like a pulsar sending us its bleak light from the depths of the universe, the repetitive synthesizer textures are spiraling, and Wayne Coyne’s ethereal voice sounds like a hybrid between a Gregorian chant and an alien’s cry floating in space, reciting mantras till the end of times, actually drowned and distant mantras you can’t even figure out most of the time! The lyrics are sun-obsessed, death-obsessed, cosmos-obsessed, loneliness-obsessed, with rare glimpses of lights, often killed by devastating lines such as ‘Love is always something/Something you should fear’, in ‘Look… The Sun is Rising’, or ‘However love can help you/We are all standing alone, in ‘The Terror’.


There is no real standout in the album, no song that you will put in repeat on your Spotify playlist, ‘The Terror’ has to be listened at once, in its entirety, with the sad melody of ‘Be Free, A Way’ going crescendo, the creepy and mysterious 13-minute march of ‘You Lust’ going in circles before fading away, the cosmic/mortality contemplation of ‘Butterfly (How Long It Takes To Die)’, and the Thom York-esque falsetto of ‘Turning Violent’.


When reading about the album, I learned that Wayne Coyne recently separated from his partner of 25 years, so this and Steven Drozd’s drug relapse last year, could of course explain the bleakness emerging from the music. I doubt they can bring the balloons and the backup goofy dancing animals when they perform these songs live. This time, I am afraid the blood doesn’t look fake.


At the end, many noise-songs will sound the same, and if you don't pay attention enough, you will easily get lost in these meanders of synth and ethereal voices, singing in repeat that you are alone and you will feel really depressed. Because doom day has clearly arrived, there is not much comfort anywhere, and there is no fist in the air in sight either. There’s no triumph at all, only contemplation of a resignation, only the terror of a defeated man standing in a frightening soundscape that threatens and overwhelms him.

But there is also an almost religious dimension to this music, not that I think any of the Lips is a religious person, Wayne Coyne has occasionally said he doesn't believe there is an afterlife, but the album sounds like a religious ode celebrating nothingness. Yes, the Lips have composed a religious music for the 21st century anchored in our we-are-all-alone and doomed nature rather than in supernatural. ‘The Terror’ is the Flaming Lips going naked, and not hiding their despair behind party balloons anymore, it is them going from childhood to adulthood, but it seems that the caterpillar had all the fun and the butterfly just wonders how long it takes to die.

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