The 12th studio album from Oklahoma's fabulous Flaming Lips represents the sort of radical surprise and unexpected departure that was commonplace from these long-running psychedelic rockers through the first two acts of their career, from their origins as a sort of "Replacements on acid" during the indie-rock '80s through their hard-hitting mainstream breakthrough in the alternative-rock heyday of the'90s. But since their reinvention as a digital orchestral-pop band with "The Soft Bulletin" in 1999, they've become both less prolific and more predictable, with each new release boasting flashes of brilliance but ultimately taking a backseat to their increasingly shtick-filled low-budget multi-media stage shows.
Simply put, longtime fans were growing increasingly impatient waiting for the Lips to quit being cute, retire the armies of plushies, the space bubble and the group sing-alongs on "Happy Birthday," and finally hit us with some truly twisted, thoroughly mind-blowing rock 'n' roll again a la the early epic "One Million Billionth of a Millisecond on a Sunday Morning."
"Embryonic" is not entirely successful in this regard--it's not nearly in the same league as "In a Priest Driven Ambulance" (1990) or "Transmissions from the Satellite Heart" (1993)--but it is freakier, more expansive, more willfully noncommercial and more surprising than anything Wayne Coyne and company have given us in 14 years.
Favoring space-jazz rhythms that split the difference between electric Miles Davis and Krautrockers Can, with wild bursts of distorted guitar that evoke gonzo Frank Zappa crossed with punked-out mid-period Pink Floyd, the 18 tracks comprise what would have been a great headphone-friendly double album back in the day. Songs such as "I Can Be A Frog" (featuring delightful background animal yelps from Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeah's), "Scorpio Sword" and "Sagittarius Silver Announcement" are about creating a surreal and otherworldly mood rather than playing to the crowd that loves to sing along to "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1." The mistake the Lips made with their last album, "At War with the Mystics" (2006) was trying to split the difference; here, they're unapologetically weird once more.
How will the festival crowd that has come to think of this group as the ultimate party band react to this material? And will the group boldly push further into this stratosphere in concert, or will it just throw a few hints of these sounds into the increasingly hoary stage show? (That's what it did at the Pitchfork Music Festival last summer, incorporating the catchiest of the new tracks--"Convinced of the Hex" and "Silver Trembling Hands"--amid the expected greatest hits.) The answers to those questions have to wait until the group's next U.S. tour in the Spring. Meanwhile, it's given us new cause to dust off the bong and the blacklight, and that's cause to celebrate.