Listening to The Flaming Lips’ latest album, ‘The Terror,’ reminds me of mars, and not just because of longtime collaborator George Salisbury’s cover art. Salisbury has always evoked otherworldly realms with his trademark blending of 50s sci-fi kitsch and 60s psychedelia. With his ‘Terror’ cover, we have a much harsher, overexposed image, reminiscent of the apocalyptic paranoia of Cold War propaganda reels. It’s from here that we turn to the martian landscape, specifically that visited by Dr. Manhattan in Alan Moore’s 1987 comic series, Watchmen. In Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan, a near-omnipotent being regards the desolate beauty of Mars’ surface, with its immense rock-forms and endless sand storms. Such is the beauty of ‘The Terror,’ an album that has The Flaming Lips evoking such natural splendor via their trademark, decidedly unnatural sound.
First thing’s first: if a whole quarter of your album is going to be comprised of a single song, you’d better make it a good one. Fortunately, “You Lust” is not only great (such that its 13 minutes practically fly by), it’s something of a cornerstone for ‘The Terror,’ depicting a desolate future where the petty drives of modern society lay in waste, echoing to a cold void the folly of man. This naturalistic viewpoint serves as something of a lens for the album, one through which The Flaming Lips’ indefatigable melodic sensibilities can seep. They have little choice but to, given the impassive drive of the title song, as well as album opener “Look… The Sun Rising.” This latter track, its title a pithy summation of the theme of detachment, is a terrific introduction for listeners to ‘The Terror’s’ newer, darker brand of Flaming Lips.
Said fans might have thought the band had gotten as bleak as they could with 2009’s ‘Embryonic.’ That album, along with OK Go’s 2010 album ‘Of the Blue Colour of the Sky’ and MGMT’s ‘Congratulations’ (all collaborations with long-time Lips producer Dave Fridmann), could be seen as pro-generators for the current musical climate, up to and including the commercial boom of more independent and offbeat acts. All the same, for as out there as ‘Embryonic’ seemed, it was still conventional enough for each of its 18 songs to feel like entities unto themselves. On ‘The Terror,’ every track contributes to the greater whole, from the way “Be Free, A Way” offers a softer reflection of “Look… A Sun Rising,” to the way “You Are Alone’s” own pessimistic inner-struggle foreshadows the discordantly unsettling “Turning Violent.” Even the final track, “Always There, In Our Hearts,” features a noted sonic similarity to the opening track which lends the titular message a stubborn insistence against the overriding chaos.
That chaos is the reason you approach an album like ‘The Terror’ in the first place. Each track can’t be easily singled out on its own merits; rather, you simply sink into the whole swirling concoction, buoyed from one song to the next in blissful ignorance. If you’re lucky, which you will be in the cases of “Be Free, A Way” and “Try to Explain,” you’ll occasionally break through all that swarming cacophony to glimpse some precious moments of serene calm. Even beyond them, however, there is a kind of beauty to be found back down on Mars as well, so to speak. You simply have to open your mind to it; and if ever there was a band all about opening minds, The Flaming Lips would be them.