top of page

21st CENTURY SCHIZOID MEN (HOW THE FLAMING LIPS STAY WEIRD PT.II): WHY "EMBRYONIC" IS A MASTERPIECE

Updated: May 8, 2023


By LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN

@LonnPhillips Somewhere around 1984/85, when Wayne finally began growing weary of his eleven year gig at a local OKC Long John Silver's, The Flaming Lips started getting very serious......but even during their first ambitious sea change, the freaky Oklahoma natives never anticipated their Yoshimi / Soft Bulletin echelon of success..... Wayne, Michael and Steven definitely didn't expect anything like the flood of royalty cash, millions more fans, or Grammy wins / nominations which followed in the wake of the new Lips-dominated 21st century.... Maybe that's why their iconic ascension took nearly 20 years to generate the acid-laced Macey's Day parade Wayne envisioned all along. Just like a planet derived from matter's ethereal cosmic chaos, back during the Lips' 80s heyday as fringe art-punk vampires, Oklahoma's greatest heroes never felt words such as "legacy" or "major label success" would ever attach themselves to their musical psychopathy. Most artists can only dream of enjoying a 20 year "career" as it is; many bands on our planet would commit an untold amount of illegal deeds for a sliver of the Lips' enormously loyal fan base & transcendent success.....however, none of their peers could navigate the murky waters of major label greed or bullydom and come out on the other side with hard fought, long term creative freedom & commercial success.......which Wayne Coyne & Lips manager Scott Booker pulled off...

The vast majority wouldn't have the patience, charm or humanity to go toe-to-toe vs Warner Brothers suits and compel self-serving dinosaurs into releasing a 4 disc record called Zaireeka...well, then again, Perry Farrell once forced two fully naked album covers on the same label. ...In this manner, the Flaming Lips earned every penny of their fortunes, the DIY way. On the other side of their genius coin, most songwriters would require three lifetimes to muster enough energy or cultivate the kind of freebird mind that could create radiant songs such as "The Spark That Bled", "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate", "A Spoonful Weighs A Ton", "Riding Into Work in 2025", "Do You Realize??", "Waiting for Superman", "Race for The Prize" or "Are You A Hypnotist??"...while these songs only stem from a 4 year period in the songwriting careers of Wayne Coyne, Steven Drozd and Michael Ivins. Suddenly, despite developing a tried & true "formula" of psychedelic populism with twin peaks Soft Bulletin & Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, 2006's follow-up At War With The Mystics found the group astray in overt political pop, an era more remembered for its tour than the album itself:

Since they attained status as rock and roll pirates in 1992, The Flaming Lips only made one underwhelming record to date: when they delivered the high profile, extroverted, out of focus At War With The Mystics.

Here, Wayne was caught name-checking Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani, the worth of Donald Trump (as always, the Lips were well ahead of their time) while discussing the insanity of Bush and his dual wars in Afghanistan / Iraq. Despite the band's improved audience numbers and bigger shows, the signals from both fans or critics towards Mystics remained justifiably mixed....

Though Mystics' better tracks are enhanced in a live setting, this outcast record still contains vastly overlooked pieces of Lips-ian marvel: "Vein of Stars", "My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion", "Free Radicals", "The W.A.N.D", Steven's Meddle-esque opus "Pompeii Am Gotterdammerung" all stand among the band's 30-40 greatest songs, sounding straight up immaculate onstage.

But there was trouble elsewhere:

For the first time in their existence, extreme accusations of "filler over killer" arrived through singles "Mr. Ambulance Driver", "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song", "It Overtakes Me" and deep album cut "The Sound of Failure"; while all four are worthy experiments in popist ecology from these studio impressionists, listening to those songs in 2021 feels odd....their sound is entirety rooted in the Waynebrain mainframe of 2005/2006 (anchored around brilliant oddball assists from Steven, making the bumpy ride an entertaining voyage, nonetheless). As much as I embraced & admired their very public anti-war stance, the Lips weren't operating in their best zone: Delivering specific / coherent political lyrics or showing off their pop culture acquaintances wasn't their strongest suit, although it was a cool "Celebrity Lips" era while it lasted.....Wayne, Steven and Michael were always better at going directly for the jugular: right for the soul.

Much like their Miley Cyrus collaborations, the Lips' extreme extroversion came at a cost when the emotional payoffs of some Mystics' tracks swung and missed at the plate; Still, without the band's Bush-bashing 2006 escapade, ushering in the Lips' brash return of talkbox guitar & other justified 70s effects, or its lengthy tour drenched in classic rock covers, Embryonic may not have happened........such is alchemy.

In the aftermath of Mystics' diminishing returns, the Lips continued to raise the stakes concerning their live show:


The onstage dancers and costume-wearing fans grew larger, often times wore less clothes, the backstage parties were wilder, more confetti was being blasted into the crowd than ever before, Wayne started playing "Taps" on a trumpet to mail home the anti-war theme, any song could be covered...the bigger the song, the more Steven was aroused by the challenge (from instituting a bizarre instrumental jam of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir", performing full versions of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody", Black Sabbath's anti-war ode "War Pigs" or the Stones' "Moonlight Mile") and in the wake of Steven Drozd kicking his decade-long heroin addiction, the Lips' crew made sure there was more than enough marijuana backstage.

Shit, they even filmed a live DVD with a giant UFO suspended above the stage (as seen throughout the epic UFOs At the Zoo).

The excess became the point..... almost masking the wayward Mystics' record; But by the close of their biggest decade, The Flaming Lips opted for something far more strange than classic rock comeuppance or sonic safety:

Forever afraid of complacency's boredom, another U-turn arrived... Beginning in 2008, the Flaming Lips embarked upon their "third career" trajectory: from indie rock symphonists competing for the same tier as Pet Sounds, Revolver, Tommy, or Days of Future Passed, now Wayne, Michael and Steven exchanged constant synths and invisible guitar for a vacation back to their roots:

Ever since Steven cranked up the guitars on Mystics, and the band placed increasing faith in drummer Kliph Scurlock (following seven years as a touring member), Wayne, Michael & Steven wanted to record as a live band again.


The results would send the Oklahoma visionaries on a course few would've expected but many welcomed, including their oldest fans from the 80s.

Stamped in place by the unhinged guitar dread of The Stooges, backed by the throbbing bass of Echo and The Bunnymen / Joy Division, while laced with enough lysergic Sabbath riffage to keep Tony Iommi's keen attention, the Flaming Lips returned to the 21st century as Mansonite deathtrip hedonists on a freak out. Recorded in an alternate Flaming Lips reality where the band returned to the Coyne basement, circa 1984 (this time with Steven, drummer Kliph Scurlock, as well as producer Dave Fridmann), their next move would be to record demos at Steven's vacant Oklahoma home.

Although the album began with Steven leaving recording equipment & a drum set at his house, before turning into demo sessions, it ended with an 18 song collection of the band's most jarring, innovative and impressive material, all handcrafted at home.

In fact, most of these demo recordings would form the basis of the album's sound:

Wayne with a Fender XII in the hallway, Kliph's drums in the living room, Michael playing bass out on the deck or any other combination of instrumentation / personnel / locations...the house became an impromptu studio with a perfect vibe for the project.

Though the band would later decamp back to Tarbox Studios for some of the denser material, gone were Yoshimi's electronic blips or bleeps, flutters of electric drum sets, or Soft Bulletin's 90 xylophone & synth tracks on a single chorus....at the same time, their 2009 double LP wouldn't be an exercise in "stripped back" recording, either:


Embryonic may be the coolest, most bizarre Flaming Lips record, simply due to the album embracing both analog and digital elements, creepy spoken word sections, ambient space rock, rhythmic voodoo stompers, as well as maintaining an open defiance of expectations upon release: Because of Mystics' disappointing / disregarded legacy and the unbelievable pressure from The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, 2009's Embryonic turned into the first "do or die" Lips album, challenging their own absolute success and achievement with defiant, feral rock and roll.

Though the band started recording sessions with some typical Lips fare, the "Instant Karma"-esque "UFOs Over Baghdad", "What Does It Mean", "Just Above Love" and "Anything You Say Now I Believe You" (the latter being a great lost gem, tossed away for a documentary about mushrooms), the entire earlier sessions were scrapped.

After only a few songs, Wayne, Steven and Michael realized they were making the same record again...and they weren't going down that path.

"I think this one, this record, more than any other record that we've ever done, that's including even our earliest records in the early 80s, almost none of the songs that we wrote ended up on the record...but they all led somewhere to me that seemed more strange, more new and more...unexplainable," Wayne recalled about the scrapped tracks, shortly after the sessions in 2009.

The uplifting and deeply emotional sounds found on The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi depicted the manifestation of Steven Drozd's unbelievable ear for melodic power alongside Wayne Coyne's ability to execute his extremely underrated brand of lyrics, the tracks often awash in Fridmann's synthesis to a punishing degree ("Waitin' For Superman"); But for Embryonic, they took the same sounds and vibe which made The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi pop-craft epics (in an era of dying rock and roll) and perverted them for a younger, darker and more drugged out audience who already knew about Close To The Edge, Lennon's Plastic Ono Band or heard all of Funhouse at their crazy uncle's place.... Inspired by Miles Davis' Bitches Brew, Black Sabbath, John Lennon's early solo career, as well as new friends / Fridmann collaborators MGMT (among others), these songs would prove to be the first culmination (of many) in Wayne & Steven's favorite lyrical / thematic past time: drugs in suburbia.

If The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi was the musical embodiment of the Flaming Lips' Summer of Love, then Embryonic would be cast as their "Altamont sounding" record: As frightening as Embryonic is alluring, the album is an intense workout guided by each groove, replete with plundering, psychedelic violence through the band's house jams; These jams were given some of the best Flaming Lips titles yet, collectively illustrating Steven, Michael & Wayne's surreal aesthetic at its most barbarically acid-damaged: Containing equalizing songs and a meaningful barrage of dark lyrical themes ("Sagittarius Silver Announcement" sounding like a cult leader flowing into a 60s sundream,"Silver Trembling Hands" about a woman who's "waiting for the secret society to fall.....she forgets about The Fear when she's high", the cool segue "Gemini Syringes" rooted within Wayne's stained-glass window space odyssey, "Your Bats" going from a meaty groove into becoming an unbelievable stage for Wayne & Steven's brilliant harmonies)....

Steven playing a Fender XII, the guitar used most in the sessions.

Embryonic is packed to the brim with fluid instrumental surprises unlike anything we've ever heard on a Lips record (before or since):

Trademarked by pulsating percussion, scratchy fuzzed out Fender XII string guitars, and an untouchable live atmosphere, producer Dave Fridmann dismantled the euphoria of their last decade's work, handing Yoshimi the brown acid and commanding everyone to "turn on, kinda tune in, definitely drop out"....

"Dave Fridmann pushed us and challenged us and made us rethink all the ways that we work, all the ways we thought we were comfortable with," Coyne explained, "but I think after making 13 or 14 records, I don't think we'd be satisfied with just trying to remake one of those. We don't wanna remake The Soft Bulletin again, or Yoshimi and The Pink Robots again or do ya know, anti-war / psychedelic drug-rock songs like we did on the last record." One of our world's most criminally underrated producers showcased his ability to adapt throughout the 2009 opus: Although overdubs would still play their role, the album's basic tracks capture the band in a room, Fridmann perfectly devolving from The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi's pastoral landscapes to highly influential, superbly stained "VHS production" on Embryonic:

Led by cascading Alan White tom tom to snare shotgun fills (then-Lips' drummer Kliph Scurlock and Steven dueling on kits for some tracks), the album is rooted around a rotating rhythmic groove....a thick, beckoning pulse which moves the masterpiece along ("Silver Trembling Hands", "The Sparrow Looks Up At The Machine" and "Convinced of the Hex" to name a few examples).

There's sections where Wayne himself takes on guitar or even fuzz bass, like the thickening deathdrone masterpiece "Worm Mountain", a heavy palette of fuzz and bongo percussion backing an ominous Bonham groove; During the haunted chorus, the band are joined by Fridmann friends MGMT for ghoulish vocals..........

When it concerns Embryonic, the term "kitchen sink" is always a good thing........ With an original, dilapidated sound cultivated during all day and night jam sessions at Steven's semi-secluded OKC home, the Lips had fully returned to their boyhood roots. After a jam on "Worm Mountain" where Wayne and Michael switched bass and guitar, Steven went to the microphone to laugh, "this is the time where my dad turned the power off on the room and started screaming at me and my friends." Throughout these experimental jams, the Lips approached their instruments in child-like awe, swapping / switching gear or even band roles, rediscovering their mid-70s teenage abandon via this process. Songs sometimes began with the knobs of effects pedals turned to awkward settings, supplying new sounds as well as providing a greasy, Technicolor-stained mid-70s production.....paying homage to some of the three Lips members' favorite music...most importantly, the music which made them want to be the Flaming Lips in the first place. "I think as we went along, we knew we were going to make a double record," Wayne detailed, "And Steven and I considered that we were gonna do, like, nine or 10 songs, and then we were gonna do nine or 10 things that we thought were going to be, like, 'freakouts.' We didn't know what these things were going to be, which was exciting to us."

Taking cues from The Beatles White Album & The Clash's Sandinista!, the Flaming Lips embraced the idea of their first double LP: 2009 was the right time for the Lips' own White Album, an untamed illustration of the principles Wayne, Steven and Michael lived by all along, sealed on to wax...every personality identified, each band member given their time in the sun...


But it was a grind, featuring multiple versions of each song, as the five man team of Wayne, Steven, Michael, Dave Friddman and Kliph on drums arranged and rearranged much of the material, to the point Wayne often asked "My god...we've lost our minds.....what have I done?" To ground the album, Michael, Wayne and Steven came up with seven "freakouts", divine zodiac-lingering experiments "Gemini Syringes", "Aquarius Sabotage", "Sagittarius Silver Announcement", stuff that sounded like Sabbath-influenced post-punks joining a 70s sex cult. There was as much a Peter Hook-ian wall of melodic mirth as there were fuzz tangled guitars, mixing Mystics-era guitar fireworks with bizarre effect pedal combinations, meeting an all new variety of bass sounds Lips fans hadn't heard before on record: ring modulators, auto wah pedals, phasers, envelope filters, every kind of fuzz box or wacky distortion pedal you could find....the Lips' were going off the deep end. Largely due to these sessions, the Oklahoma outfit's process later grew into an "open door policy", a constant invitation to whomever was nuts or creative enough to show up, but the Embryonic album pulled us fully into their maverick orbit or artistic whimsy without any reservations, pulling no punches... "I think this time, doing a double record, I think we started off way out in the woods and went further and further and further...." Wayne said in 2009 on the Blastula DVD. "Somewhere along the way it occurred to me that we should do a double album... Just this idea that you can weave a couple of themes in there and you can sprawl a little bit." Keeping in mind Embryonic's "sprawling" theme, song arrangements and "basement jam" birth, the double album format allowed the freakiest band on the planet to really let their hair down in ways they hadn't explored since the late 80s:

Inspired by the lengthy solos from Jeff Tweedy and Nels Cline of Wilco, Wayne wanted to record "his own 10 minute guitar solo" on the dark globe death trip number "Powerless". One of the album's lesser-played songs, "Powerless" is a hypnotic mindfuck, venturing to a dark side of Fridmann's moon and staying there....bound for minutes on end. Though the solo would be trimmed to just under 5 minutes, the wild, raga sitar solo was Wayne's first guitar solo ever on a Flaming Lips record. Just like "Powerless", this was an in your face album full of the Lips' heaviest numbers & some of their best riffs:

Apocalyptic centerpiece "See The Leaves" would become an even bigger force on the live stage, its climate change prophecies looking more and more foreboding by the day; With Michael's creepy bassline chugging away, the track becomes a literal death march before everything halts.....just the funeral keyboard lines from Steven and a choir of ghostly Waynes repeating "they're dying again..." "Silver Trembling Hands" remains one of the coolest pop fuckups of all time, a beautiful chorus saddled on a runaway riff...almost the Lips' darker update of "Ride My See-Saw".

One of my favorites will always be the great second track "The Sparrow Looks Up At The Machine", an absolute testament to Wayne Coyne's lyrical and melodic power combined with Steven Drozd's prodigious ears to match, "whaaaaat? What does it mean? To dream what you dreeeeam....to believe what you've seen...", all fronted by a serial killer's drum part. Second disc standout "The Ego's Last Stand" became a live favorite during their nearly 3 year tour supporting the double record. Using quiet to loud dynamics, a high octane riff that must've been written by an Asheton / Williamson clone & wrapped in Wayne's ultimate tribute to the mind overcoming the chemistry set it has become. There were also a few genuinely uplifting tracks amid the Sabbath-ian narcotic haze coming off the fiery riffage: "Evil" is a sorrowful tune but a welcome reprieve..., joined by the softer "If", both placed for maximum impact between the desolate ending of "See the Leaves" and "Gemini Syringes". Wayne's voice tries to "turn back time" as Steven accompanies him like a "HAL-9000 Elton John". But with Wayne, there's always going to be one song featuring an animal protagonist, although it's usually a good one: "I Can Be A Frog" is perhaps the Lips' dumbest / cutest track of all time, easily skippable, yet absurdly priceless in its admirable failure.

Is this Wayne's "Piggies"??

Finishing the record on a final bizarre freak out dud, "Watching the Planets" stomped and funked but didn't hit the emotional trigger...instead the party fades as the voices grow louder "oh oh oh...watching the planets, oh oh oh, watching the planets align..."

With all its rough edges, moments of stunning beauty, narcotic death haze production & truly great songs, Embryonic was done by Spring 2009....but were Flaming Lips fans ready for its madcap aural violence? When Embryonic was first unleashed, it was through the snakecharmer album opener "Convinced of the Hex", a song which freaked out Lips fans the world over. "Hex" wasn't their electric drum-guided pop like "Yoshimi Pt.1" or "A Spoonful Weighs A Ton"...it wasn't even their brand of grinding rock like "Talkin 'Bout the Smiley Deathporn Blues", "Unconsciously Screaming" or "Mountainside".....rather than grabbing listeners by the ears, the Flaming Lips wanted to set a tone. By the time further previews "Silver Trembling Hands" and "See the Leaves" arrived blaring through our computer speakers, the Embryonic sound wasn't new at all....it was already theirs....in a way, the album proved to be the music I had always wanted them to make. Then came the nudist colony video for "Watching the Planets" and the bloody, violent videos for "See the Leaves" and "Powerless" and my god, the aural world of the album became alive through Delo Creative's Polaroid-looking "rock and roll snuff films".

Once the tour began, extremely enthusiastic reviews began piling in from Spin, Pitchfork, Stereogum, whoever...wherever: Despite many critics feeling there were a few filler songs, the majority understood Embryonic's vision. Fans were divided, although tilted in their favor slightly....some people couldn't get over "I Can Be A Frog" or the "bloated 70s rock dinosaur double album format". It mattered not: Adding new guitarist / multi-instrumentalist Derek Brown to the lineup, the Lips' Embryonic tour traveled all over, beginning with a pre-release campaign throughout the U.S amphitheater circuit, before hitting European theaters and halls the continent over. By the time Lips' pal George Salisbury shot tour footage of the new songs, Embryonic's jam heavy "See the Leaves" (complete with a laser show guided by Coyne's gigantic prop hands), "The Sparrow Looks Up At The Machine", "Silver Trembling Hands", "Convinced of the Hex" and "The Ego's Last Stand" would anchor nearly every show....though "Evil" was also a part of the European dates, it would never be played again after 2009...

At the start of 2010, the glorious cacophony of "Worm Mountain" was introduced as the wondrous new tour opener, a place it would hold until January 2013.

Often paired with instrumental versions of Black Sabbath's like-minded "Sweet Leaf" or Soft Bulletin-outtake "The Captain Is a Cold-Hearted & Egotistical Fool", "Worm Mountain" was mainly preceded by Embryonic outtake jam "The Fear", packing a monumental punch as a gateway drug for the rest of the record. Since its release, a total of 13 Embryonic tracks have been debuted in a live setting: The divisive "I Can Be A Frog" rotated in and out of the set (painfully stretched out to 10+ minutes and recalling the uselessness of 2006's "Cow Jam"); the stumbling "Watching the Planets" hung around for a bit, sans the pubic hair monopoly of its visually hilarious video; there was a lone maiden performance of "If", audiences grew accustomed to Wayne's Jim Jones impersonation on "Sagittarius Silver Announcement" (appearing 19 times over 2010), and the mega-rarity "Powerless", featuring "Wilco Wayne" on his old green Fender Jaguar, would only receive 8 live outings; Later,"Virgo Self Esteem Broadcast" arrived during every concert from 2013-2014, set up as an extended intro for "Silver Trembling Hands".

As the tour hit 2011 and 2012, the core of the set list began moving further away from Embryonic material.....The Flaming Lips were already heading toward another transformation yet again: Starting with ambitious full cover LPs of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of The Moon, the band began recording whatever the fuck they felt like....and without Embryonic's cerebral chaos and daring darkness, the next superb projects from the Flaming Lips wouldn't have been possible...... Due to the Flaming Lips' courage, making such an uncompromising record at that highly pressurized juncture, the following years of 2011-2014 would produce some of their most ambitious projects, coolest songs, greatest tours, and freakiest collaborations....

Simultaneously, Steven, Michael and Wayne endured the toughest of changes as a band and in their personal lives, all of which would inform the creation of a project more hopeless & introspective than anything they'd ever attempted.

by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN @LonnPhillips Copyright 2021 Uninterrupted Writings Inc


257 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page