Saturday, April 6, 2013

album review: 'the terror' by the flaming lips

I think I'm obliged to say this as a professional: the majority of music that is designed to be 'scary' and 'intimidating' fucking sucks.

This is another incident where the fact that I am a music critic and have heard a ton of music speaks to a disconnect with the average music listener, but I think part of it comes down to my growth of musical knowledge. As I've said before, I jumped pretty much from boy bands and Eminem straight to power/symphonic metal, thus skipping the rap rock/rap metal/thrash period that most young teenage guys go through. But really, the more I think about that, the more I'm grateful I avoided those trends, because any retrospective examination into those genres has just filled me with contempt, disgust, and revulsion. And as someone who can get back into the teenage mindset enough to tolerate even the occasional Simple Plan song, there's no goddamn excuse for the dearth of quality in this genre.

So yeah, I'll come out and say it outright: acts like Hollywood Undead and Killswitch Engage and Atreyu and Underoath and Bring Me The Horizon just plain suck. Musically, they aren't within spitting distance of quality metal and content-wise, they just bore me. Too much of this material is wrapped up in unfortunate sadomasochistic tendencies (you know, always talking about the BLOOD and the PAIN and the SUFFERING and all that nonsense), and it's very rare that any of it is all that compelling. On top of that, it's hard for me to consider any of these acts remotely 'scary' or even all that intimidating, particularly recent entries in the genre. I think most of my issues with these acts comes back to similar issues that I have with the American horror film industry, namely that there is no subtlety or pacing. In the pursuit of over-the-top 'gorn', too many acts come across as way too ridiculous to take seriously, the music of immature white boys who don't have the sophistication or patience to take in something better. The slightly better side of the genre features acts that aren't taking themselves all that seriously but are still trying to come across as 'scary', and this tends to remind me of the trashy, too-hip-for-the-room schlock otherwise known as 90s horror films. 

But either way, it's not scary to me. The obsession with gore and tits in some of this material is exploitative, but it's not compelling exploitation and it has nothing to say. I'll make an exception for some of Marilyn Manson's material because he has occasionally made some interesting albums, but even that stuff relies too much on shock imagery and the musical equivalent of a jump scare. And sure, that can be startling or revolting, but that doesn't horrify me or even come across as particularly memorable. I think some of it is desensitization, but really, outside of the occasional political polemic Marilyn Manson includes (which you tend to see more of in the industrial punk/metal scene), there's just not much there.

I think the other big problem with my retrospective examination of these genres is that I'm a fan of Eminem, who is probably the only artist I can think of who balanced being scary with being listenable. That's another issue I have with most of the modern metalcore or horrorcore acts: the overproduction stands out, making the songs appear too polished to really get under my skin. Hell, this even happened a bit with Eminem's Relapse (although I'd argue that overproduction choice was part of the point of that album, showing just how heinous and simultaneously pathetic Slim Shady really was). 

But let's ask the question why The Marshall Mathers LP, arguably the best horrorcore album ever made, works and actually does come across as genuinely scary to me, even to this day. Well, there are a number of elements that contribute here: Dr. Dre's minimalistic, grimy beats, the bleak production, the tone of menace present even on the lighter tracks, or the fact that Eminem always brings an intensity that feels genuine (one of my recurring problems with horrorcore rapper Cage, by the way). But what I think made the album work the best was the grounding of it all in real, human places. Songs like 'The Way I Am', 'Kill You', 'Stan', 'Marshall Mathers', and especially 'Kim' are creepy and unnerving not just because of the instrumentation and subject matter, but the fact that they feel like they're grounded in human emotion and come from a very real, very dark place. Eminem isn't trying to ingratiate himself to you or come across like a decent human being, he's intentionally exposing his very worst impulses to the microphone and daring you to listen. This purposeful alienation really adds an interesting concept to the rest of his career, particularly on subsequent albums, and some could read that alienation and subsequent loneliness and disillusionment with fame as founding factors for his next three albums.

But I'm getting off-track, because what the ultimate point I'm trying to make is that even today, Eminem managed to nail the elements that make music genuinely scary for me, stuff that can send a shiver down my spine. And really, no other artist who has followed him has really managed to capture that same fear.

Until now. Because The Flaming Lips, the experimental rock act known for some of the strangest and psychedelic experiments in music have just released their thirteenth studio album The Terror - and it scared the shit out of me.

Now, granted, everyone has unique triggers that scare them - something that scares me might not scare someone else, and I'm really not knowledgeable enough about the Jungian psychology of fear to speak on the subject. However, I think The Flaming Lips might have pulled off something genuinely terrifying on this album, and I'd like to try and articulate how it evoked such a surprisingly visceral response from me,  partially because it's a phenomenal record and partially because I'd like to get to the roots of my own neuroses more than anyone.

The first thing that needs to be noted is the change in temperment that took place in frontman Wayne Coyne's mind between this album and the previous one Embryonic. Now that album sparked a bit of a mixed reaction amongst fans of The Flaming Lips, but is considered a welcome improvement from the album prior to that At War With The Mystics (which while not good, isn't nearly as bad as most tend to think it is). But between Embryonic and today, The Flaming Lips released two other side projects: a complete cover album of Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon (which is good, but doesn't really need to exist) and The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, which I reviewed here. During these albums, the already eclectic band experimented with a lot of different sounds and moods, but Wayne Coyne wanted to try something different going into this album. Instead of creating the psychedelic yet wondrous experience of the previous albums, here he wanted to alienate and bewilder instead. Instead of the acid high, he wanted to trigger the acid freakout.

And really, it's this first element that sets the stage for the sound of the album and makes it so unnerving and creepy on its own. Sonically, it's a refinement and sharpening of the sound they've been working on for the past several albums, but even on the songs that are more formulaic, there's something subtly 'off' about them. Using some binaural techniques (something The Flaming Lips have been experimenting with since Zaireeka), the band works to construct a coherent and often very engaging melody - and then adds in extraneous sounds or shifts the tempo of one of their beats to create the uneasy feeling that something isn't right. Now, granted, there are points where the use of extraneous sound becomes less unsettling and more irritating and distracting, but fortunately those points are few and far between. As a device designed to alienate and confuse and unsettle the listener, however, it works surprisingly well, making The Terror an excellently composed, yet incredibly unnerving album. 

And to add to the atmosphere are the vocal effects, here piled on thick and heavy. It takes a lot of effort to hear the lyrics behind the reverb and echo and overdubbed choral on some tracks, and when you do hear them, they don't seem to make much sense - unless you manage to take the whole song in context, where it makes all too much sense and becomes profoundly creepy. But even half-heard, I'd still argue the confusing, cryptic lyrics do more to add to the feeling of distinct unease, playing on one's fear of the unknown. 

But really, it is the lyrical subject matter that is the star of this album, with songs that skip the gore and murderous intent of more songs aiming to scare, instead targeting something much more primal and universal. To my mild annoyance, Wayne Coyne stated in a press release that the general idea of The Terror is the realization of the concept that love is not required for life, and that without love, life will just continue on, and on, and on...

Yeah, even despite my usual disdain for when artists flat-out explain the idea of their album, that's a hell of a premise for any body of work. What's better is how The Flaming Lips expand on that premise throughout the album, exploring various facets of love's loss and the fear that comes behind it. The first track 'Look... The Sun Is Rising' dives headfirst into this concept, immediately driving to the natural extreme by tackling love and religion (with the Sun as a symbol for God). It describes the fear lurking behind any who love what they worship, and yet are keenly aware that it might not exist, or is just some mind-control ploy. The next song 'Be Free, A Way' expands on that premise, putting forward the possibility that one's love for religion - or indeed anything in this life - something we do to delude ourselves from the emptiness of it all.

Now these are all potent existential questions that really got to me, forcing underlying insecurities that I think about more than I really should, but rest assured that The Flaming Lips do indeed make things more relatable to the human experience. They start with 'Try To Explain', where it rephrases the existential dilemma of the previous two songs into a human relationship that's falling apart. It's phrased in an interesting way, positing Wayne Coyne as the guy getting dumped because his partner has changed and moved on in ways he can't understand. And while he's believing the explanations, he can't quite understand them, and when he attempts to delve into the root of his love for the girl, all he finds is his own self-delusion. The next song 'You Lust' gets even darker, as 'pure' love falls away to reveal 'impure' lust, as Coyne confronts his self-delusion with scorn, describing how all the good things of the relationship that he cherished are the first to be forgotten, and that his own rage will sustain itself long after the love is gone. The entire song - which goes a little long, I'll admit - comes across as a deflection technique, the 'Rage' stage of denial. But it still manages to work because it's potent and it feels real, the anger that springs from love burned away at both ends.

It's interesting that Wayne Coyne then places the title track at the midpoint of the album, reflecting the implacable reality of his central thesis. Of the many title tracks on albums I've reviewed, this is one of the best, as it perfectly captures the general idea of his album and crystallizes it further. He stresses that those who succumb to 'The Terror' made the choice to throw away love, but yet to get to that realization, it'll require overcoming steep denial. What works about this song is its universality - it can apply both to the simple context of a relationship and the acceptance that all parties have some part to play in the loss of love, or to the larger relationship one has with higher powers where love fades to bitterness, scorn, and rage. As such, it resonated on multiple levels with me - and also made me feel all the more conscious of my human failings.

But, of course, Wayne Coyne isn't done, and in 'You Are Alone' he immediately hammers on the point that when one throws away love and experiences 'The Terror', there's loneliness that comes with it. It's a pretty vicious song that allows denial to accumulate before being brutally uncut, but with 'You Lust', it is one of the two songs that feel a little extraneous. Still, I can't deny that it's an unsettling track, and definitely not one I'd ever want to play when I'm actually by myself at any point, and this shows another way The Flaming Lips get this sort of horror. They don't rely on jump scares or shocking lyrics, they rely on atmospherics and preying on the very human fear of loneliness and the failure to connect. 

The 'failure to connect' elements come front and center in the next song 'Butterfly, How Long It Takes To Die', with the delicate beauty of the song constantly cracking with harsh grating guitar at the bottom of the track. This is intentional to underscore the point of the song, that those who throw away love are all the more acutely aware of those who have it. The butterfly represents the beauty of love's connection between others, and the song works hard to play on the grief, rage, and jealousy of those from outside. And once again, the song works on multiple levels, again referencing both human relationships and those one has with a higher power, which draws the dark conclusion that those who lose faith are both contemptuous and jealous of those who still have it. 

And these cracks only come further to the forefront with 'Turning Violent', where Coyne's ethereal delivery is juxtaposed against the growing sullen rage at the bottom of the track that finally explodes. The lyrics constantly reference the fact that people who lose love and feel they have nothing else to live for will turn to rage and violence, even though these people under any other circumstance aren't violent. But with that rage comes the realization that such violence is ultimately hollow and worthless, only perpetuating the downward spiral.

But the final track is where everything comes together and Wayne Coyne's true point is revealed: that we all have that capacity and we can find and regain love, but that all of the dark, resentful, hateful emotions exist as well, and we all have that capacity too. But the crux of the argument comes in the last lines, where he stresses that once The Terror takes a hold of us, it can easily overwhelm any such trifling emotions such as love, and that without forgiveness or compassion, that loveless existence can be impossible from which to break free. 

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the real terror, and what makes this album so damn scary. In the end, it's a fairly simple acknowledgement: that there is real darkness inside all of us, and that if we throw away love, we can easily succumb to it. But when combined with the atmosphere and the implacable nature of how it all might end, it becomes genuinely horrifying, particularly as the album points out just how hollow and worthless succumbing to a life without love actually is. And by constantly juxtaposing human relationships with the ones we create between ourselves and higher powers, Coyne shows doesn't just show the downside of life without love for others, but also the results of losing our faith. With that in mind, The Terror is probably one of the harshest criticisms of nihilism you'll ever find.

Overall, The Terror is a fucking phenomenal album, with a solidity of theme and symbolism that wasn't always in the weaker entries of The Flaming Lips' catalogue. That said, it's certainly not an easy listen, particularly for anyone who is prepared to think about this album in a heavier context. But even without the lyrics, it's a deeply unsettling work that's most definitely not fun to listen through. But on the other hand, that's kind of the point - Coyne isn't looking to entertain but to alienate and horrify, and in that regard, he succeeds. 

And if you're looking to experience primal, existential terror about the fragility of your love and faith and the endless wasteland that your life will become without them, I can heartily recommend The Terror by The Flaming Lips. Their last album asked the question 'what would you do at the end of the world' - this album explores the possibility that that ending might be a kindness. 

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