After four years of gummy skulls, re-created prog-rock classics, and experiments in listener endurance, a truly vital LP is the most surprising commodity The Flaming Lips could bring to market. After all, so much of the band’s prolific post-Embryonic output has gone toward proving the mustiness of the mass-produced, full-fledged pop album. In the age of GarageBand and SoundCloud, why labor for months on a Major Artistic Statement when every creative impulse can be indulged, rendered in a quirky format, and brought directly to the fans? Boasting nine tracks hanging together as a conceptual whole, the most novel aspect of The Terror is how conventional the record is.
Yet it also reveals the canniness of the Lips’ recent, fruitful period of experimentation. Just as the hit-or-miss explorations of The Parking Lot and Boombox Experiments gave way to the sonic innovations of Zaireeka and The Soft Bulletin, The Terror distills the outpouring of new material into a manageable stream of fresh musical ideas and lyrical notions. Every project the band put out between 2009 and 2012 could’ve been a dress rehearsal for the unearthly krautrock of this album’s 13-minute-long centerpiece, “You Lust”: The bad-trip psychedelia of Embryonic; Heady Fwends’ collaborations with younger artists (the track features background vocals from Phantogram’s Sarah Barthel); the lessons in sustaining musical tension over long periods of time culled from “6 Hour Song (Found A Star On The Ground)” and its never-ending companion, 7 Skies H3.
In sorting through the messy tangle of music that precedes, The Terror fixes its gaze inward. It’s a contemplative LP, one that takes in societal ills and unstoppable entropy, recognizing that much of that darkness and chaos originates from within. Any finger-pointing on “You Lust” ultimately turns back on those doing the pointing; apocalyptic closer “Always There, In Our Hearts” marries Wayne Coyne’s falsetto to a laundry list of emotions neatly summarized as “something pure that we can’t control.” In light of this lyrical introspection, Coyne and his bandmates crafted their first truly successful headphone record, one that relies on stereo trickery as much as an electronic atmosphere that seems to have rubbed off from time spent with Phantogram and Neon Indian (and maybe a few late-night spins of Oneohtrix Point Never’s sci-fi epic, Rifts). As such, no cut from The Terror could sit comfortably with the props and stunts that have dominated The Flaming Lips’ live shows since The Soft Bulletin. Steven Drozd’s drumming still worships at the altar of stadium-rock gods, but on “Always There, In Our Hearts” and its fellow bookend, “Look… The Sun Is Rising,” the Bonham-esque beats drive no-wave chicken scratches rather than crowd-leveling guitar heroics. It’s the type of catharsis that confetti cannons aren’t equipped to visualize.
After resisting for so long the miniaturization of rock—the entry in Continuum’s 33 1/3 series on Zaireeka aptly describes that album’s synced-up, four-disc experience as “the anti-MP3”—The Terror is The Flaming Lips record that fits in your pocket. Not that this detracts from its potency: This is a lonely record, epic in length and intimate in scope. In 30 years of getting a contact high off the Beach Boys, the band has never had a Pet Sounds moment like “Try To Explain,” which wraps a gurgling echo chamber around Brian Wilson’s sandbox—Coyne’s plastic space bubble re-imagined as an isolating womb. The Terror is the sound of The Flaming Lips going from a group experience to an internal monologue, the perfect record for any fan who has ever felt like the band could use two “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate”s for every “Race For The Prize.”