While not an unworthy album by any means, 2006's At War with the Mystics marked the first time that a Flaming Lips album did not surpass its predecessor in some way (okay, so maybe Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots didn't top the Soft Bulletin, but it's arguably in the same league). So it comes as no surprise that Embryonic, their twelfth full length studio release, is a sharp turn away from the pop inflections they implemented on the last three efforts. What is surprising, however, is just how impenetrable it is. In its first few spins, Embryonic is flat out intimidating; free formed structures, hidden melodies, and echo slathered vocals buried in noisy, relentless waves of psychedelia. A very demanding experience, but an incredibly rewarding one as well.
In fact, the only sense in which the title is fitting is that it describes how the record is constantly fleshing itself out upon repeated listens, revealing more and more of itself to the listener each time, and it takes quite a few. Embryonic is, after all, a different creature every time you hear it; you are constantly discovering new sounds. A great example is the ingenious static about two and a half minutes into The Sparrow Looks Up At the Machine, which surely had more people than just me checking their cell phones.
A dark tone is set immediately with the Lips' unmistakable yelping guitars quickly being overtaken by cold, mechanical bleeps, clanging drums, and Michael Ivins' firm, buzzing bass in the opening Convinced of the Hex. The noted influences of Joy Division and Miles Davis are immediately recognizable; moodiness recalling the former's final studio album Closer is abundant, as is the spacey experimentation that Bitches Brew so famously indulged. These influences are harnessed expertly, spliced with sounds all throughout the Flaming Lips' twenty-three year catalogue, to construct an intricate and heavy atmosphere. Even on the most playful song, I Can Be a Frog, featuring Karen O's adorable animal noise responses (which will probably only exacerbate the severe crushes so many indie boys harbor), the underlying sinister mood never quite goes away.
The drums are way up in the mix, which pays off quite well on the more uptempo tracks. Kliph Scurlock's drumming here has been compared with John Bonham numerous times, and it's easy to see why; the blasting snares and cymbals are so powerful (particularly on Aquarius Sabotage, See the Leaves, and Your Bats) that they propel these songs nearly on their own.
Another noticeable difference is in the lyrics. Starting with Clouds Taste Metallic, the band has gradually shed their deliberately bizarre shell of strange metaphors and amusing song titles (Psychiatric Exploration of the Fetus with Needles being a personal favorite) to reveal rather deep and soul searching thoughts tinged with sadness, and here they're not only more direct than ever in places, but particularly grim. Wayne Coyne's trademark quirkiness is gone from his vocal delivery, particularly in the aforementioned opener where he proclaims in an almost dead voice, "I believe in nothing, and you're convinced of the hex," or "Free to be evil, free to believe, free to be slaves now, to this silver machine" from the simultaneously warming and chilling Sagittarius Silver Announcement. Though they don't deviate terribly from the character of the rest of the album, Evil and If are the only tracks bearing any semblance to the group's more recent work, showing Coyne listlessly musing over the impossibility of time travel as a scant mask for regret and a dichotomy of a person's ability to treat others, respectively.
Embryonic will be a daunting challenge, particularly for more recent fans expecting more of the pop sensibility from the last three albums. Those who are willing to brave it, however, are in for a rich, rewarding record that, at least in this reviewer's mind, unseats Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion as the best psychedelic album of the year.