Of course, The Flaming Lips have always been brave and experimental, but a beating pop heart has been present throughout. That heart is still here on The Terror, but it’s buried deep under atonal hums, abrasive drums and throbbing synths, only revealing itself at a glacial pace after numerous listens.
Embryonic, the band’s previous full studio album, cast aside the euphoric psychedelia that had become band’s signature sound in favour of a more adventurous journey, and that journey continues into deeper territory here, typified by the epic scope of ‘You Lust’. Thirteen minutes of a minimalist Joy Division-esque motif backed by a disquieting hum, only broken by Coyne’s harsh whisper of a refrain. It’s a difficult listen, but a powerful one.
Next to that, the preceeding ‘Try To Explain’ seems as instant as ‘Do You Realize??’ despite its own similarly sparse nature. Aural jets slowly spiral into space behind Coyne’s heavenly vocals, rising towards a stately, rousing chorus – it’s a wonderful track, made all the more powerful for the brutal surroundings it finds itself in. The album was apparently put together in just a couple of night time recording sessions in between other band projects, and this track seems to suggest such an environment best, sounding like it was put together in the wee small hours in a moment of weary realisation.
Lyrically, Coyne flits between his trademark optimism and some darker moments (it’s not called The Terror for nothing) that hint at a mounting political disquiet. The band have never shied away from voicing their beliefs – ‘The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song’ is one of the most obvious political pop songs of recent years – but rather than just angry lashes towards authority, here his concerns seem a little more desolate. The sparse hum of ‘You Are Alone’ is populated by Coyne’s disquieting falsetto seemingly searching for companionship but ultimately failing to connect, while the nursery rhyme melody of ‘Turning Violent’ takes a few simple lines and slowly builds them into something almost threatening.
For anyone only familiar with The Flaming Lips of festival sets and pink robots, The Terror is a truly disquieting listen, rootless and lacking in any of the day-glo sparkle that the band has traded on so successfully. Even if you are a fan of the record, it's not something that you’re going to listen to repeatedly or stick on at a party. However, after it burrows its way under your skin, The Terror does genuinely feel like something of a dark masterpiece, the album you’ll stick on to discredit anyone who tries to claim The Flaming Lips are lacking in depth or darkness.
Though it comes clad in a garishly coloured sleeve and opens with a number called ‘Look… The Sun Is Rising’, if you think this is going to be a breezy, At War With The Mystics-type affair, you’ve got the wrong end of the stick. That opening tune is actually a clamorous, almost industrial barrage of noises whose title is sung more like a warning than the joyous exclamation it first appears to be on paper. Quite often there’s very little melody to speak of, with Wayne Coyne’s vocals buried deep in a mix that relies far more heavily for kicks on the work of Steven Drozd and his unnerving loops and jarring, glassy guitars, often reminiscent of those on Gang Of Four’s ‘Anthrax’. It’s a tough, uncompromising listen that requires not so much patience as submission; you don’t really come to enjoy a track like the unapologetically repetitive thirteen minute epic ‘You Lust’, you just kind of give over to it.
There are moments of tunefulness, sure. But they’re handled in very disconcerting ways. The vocal melody and lyrical content of the closing ‘Always There… In Our Hearts’ might be quite sweet if left to its own devices, but the musical accompaniment does a job of turning what could be a lullaby in to something altogether more nightmarish. It’s really quite a similar way of handling things as those expert rock deconstructionists Liars operate – indeed, add in a few more witchcraft references and ‘You Are Alone’ could fit nicely on They Were Wrong, So We Drowned – favouring as they do the concern of general disquieting ambience over adhering to notions of what songs “should” sound like at all times.
It’s a toughie, sure. But there are many things to be grateful about with the arrival of The Terror. For one thing, there’s no unnecessary guest appearances, no half-baked accompanying sci-fi movie, and it’s not being released on some USB stick contained in the genitals of a giant jelly baby for once. It’s the Flaming Lips at their most preoccupied with nothing other than music, and it sounds wholly f*cking weird, but great. The fact that a band thirteen albums in to their career can still make music that scares their audience is one thing. But the most amazing thing about The Terror is that it sounds like they still have the capacity to scare themselves.