The Flaming Lips - Embryonic (2009)


The Flaming Lips are not best known for their restraint and musical diffidence, particularly when they get the germ of an idea around which to hang their work.

Rarely has a band been responsible for quite so many concept-albums, with LPs like Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots and At War With The Mystics conveying intriguing philosophical ruminations through prog-psych extravaganzas, and last year's Christmas On Mars the soundtrack to a low-res "Fantastical Film Freakout" incorporating a suicidal Santa and a cosmic nativity.

Given the freedom they allow themselves, it may not have been the best idea to give themselves even greater freedom by not bothering to write songs, but just build pieces around lengthy jams. Had there been any serious astrological concept linking titles such as "Aquarius Sabotage", "Gemini Syringes" and "Scorpio Sword", rather than simply a means of differentiating between tracks, they would have been on slippery ground indeed. But the flimsy concept behind Embryonic is more like an experiential odyssey about the interdependency of good and evil. It's most effectively strung between the poles of "Evil" and "If", chunks of melancholic avant-rock in which baffled frustration at the absence of moral compass is leavened by the realisation that even evil people can be kind.

This leads to an acknowledgement, in "Sagittarius Silver Announcement", that "we can eat the fruit from the evil tree" and surrender to instinctive desires, without getting hung up by conscience. But it's all too woolly to take seriously, and is further muddied by other tracks about mathematics, leaves, animals, egolessness, dubious sub/dom flick The Night Porter, and one which Wayne Coyne describes as a "strange song about standing with my mother watching a small kitten die on her porch".

As ever with the Lips, the saving grace is the music, in which they haven't so much reinvented the wheel as the Can, with semi-improvised jams like "The Sparrow Looks Up At The Machine" and "Convinced Of The Hex" resembling nothing so much as outtakes from Can's legendary acid-head double-album Tago Mago. With two drummers emulating Jaki Liebezeit's cyclical motorik, while spindly guitar and burring organ lend vivid colouration, the latter track is especially reminiscent of the Köln quartet, while elsewhere "Silver Trembling Hands" recalls that other Krautrock cornerstone, Neu! Throughout, the rolling juggernaut riffs are tempered with subtle details and moody, semi-ambient textures which help balance the more formless improvised sections of boisterous twang'n'thump, helping make Embryonic easier to listen to, if not to follow.

Andy Gill (The Independent)

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