In the spirit of the double album nature of Embryonic, I've decided to break my review up into a three parts with an intermission after the second part. You know, kind of like a play only with better writing and no acting.
Oh, and by the way, this is going to be a long review, so just skip to the end if you want the Cliff's Notes version.
Part I: Why You Might Hate Embryonic
Though they had a huge hit with 'She Don't Use Jelly' in the mid-90s, The Flaming Lips didn't really become a household name, music-festival-headlining-force until the mid-00s, thanks to The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. Those two albums were hardly typical pop music, but they definitely saw the Lips curving their music to a populist, arena friendly, anthemic and fun direction. This wasn't a bad thing; I love those albums and the band deserved all the success and critical adulation. And even though 2006's At War With The Mystics left me a bit underwhelmed, it gave the world a handful more choruses to sing along with the band at their 'insane psychedelic spectacle life affirmingly fun' live shows.
As the band grew more popular, I kind of got the impression that there was a bigger and bigger disconnect between their albums and their live shows. The band make use of some pre-recorded music live, and since there's so much buzz about the crazy costumes, lights, confetti, fake blood, and that big bubble thing that lets Wayne Coyne walk on top of the audience, you get the feeling that, while it's still about the music, it's at least equally as much about the experience of watching the band perform. This isn't bad, but I personally think the albums suffered for it. I suppose I'm mostly talking about At War With The Mystics here, but my point remains.
So, then, we come to Embryonic, an album that pretty much undoes all the crowd pleasing anthemic art rock of everything else the Lips have done for the last 10 years. It's pretty strange to think that 10 years ago they released their most 'pop' album with The Soft Bulletin, and Embryonic is their most experimental. It's debatable whether their early albums were just as experimental and noisy as this, but they sure don't seem like it in retrospect. In fact, Embryonic is evidence of why Dave Fridmann can be a brilliant producer. Just as he helped Sleater-Kinney realize their distorted, loud, classic rock selves with The Woods, he gives the Lips a suitably overdriven and stuffed production for this album. The early Lips releases sound kind of thin and treble-y to me in comparison. But I digress. We were talking about why you might hate Embryonic, weren't we??
Make no mistake: this is not a pop album. The emphasis is less on songs than on sheer totality of sound. This is surely the loudest Lips album, ever, and if you cut your teeth on 'Do You Realize??' or 'Race For The Prize', you'll hate every second of this album. When it's not going for the electric freakouts and thundering bass and drums, it's going for spacious, psychedelic, and slow numbers like 'Gemini Syringes.' I don't know if this is true, but Embryonic feels like it has the least singing and lyrics of any Lips album. Again: if you don't like challenging sounds, non-traditional song structures, and chaotic production, avoid Embryonic at all costs.
Part II: Why You Might Love Embryonic
If, like me, you were left a bit underwhelmed by At War With The Mystics and have been confused at Wayne Coyne's public sort-of-beefs with bands like The Arcade Fire, then Embryonic represents a welcome revitalization. Not since Zaireeka have the Lips taken such a huge chance with their music. For example, every Lips album has awesomely weird and weirdly awesome song titles, but they never end up being as strange and experimental as the names suggest. Ironic, then, that most of Embryonic's song titles are succinct, because the music is a true trip. Granted, this is hardly Trout Mask Replica territory here, but there is a lot of noise, loud instruments of all sorts, punishing drums and fuzzed out bass, and Wayne Coyne singing in ways I've never heard him before. He sounds like Jim Morrison on 'Sagittatius Silver Announcement', and hell, the band even coaxed Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to make animal noises on 'I Can Be A Frog', which is the album's one moment of true levity.
During the press for the release of the album, Coyne mentioned that the some inspirations for it were the electric music of Miles Davis and classic double albums like Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti. The former is most obvious in Embryonic's electric freakouts; during the louder tracks like 'Aquarius Sabotage', they often verge on the out-est moments of Davis's Agharta-era band, minus some funk and R&B influences. Actually, the opening bassline to 'Your Bats' is pretty much the same one from the beginning of Jimi Hendrix's 'If 6 Was 9', which is pretty damn funky when you really think about. Regardless, the influence the band took from that Led Zep double album was in letting it all hang out. For a double album, Embryonic is relatively compact, since each disc is only around 36 minutes, but fun larks like 'I Can Be A Frog' and the falsetto sort-of-ballad 'If' would probably have been left on the cutting room floor if this were a single CD's worth of material. So, yeah, it's good to know that the band was able to include them, since they provide a great contrast to the rest of the album.
Watch Wayne Coyne talk about some time he saw the Northern Lights
Part III: Conclusion
On one hand, I find it hard to recommend Embryonic with as much gusto as I normally would, since I think most people are going to find it a tuneless, loud/noisy or slow/psychedelic mess. On the other hand, I think Embryonic is the best album they've made since The Soft Bulletin. Were I really cynical, I might call Embryonic a calculated attempt to win back critics who might have stopped thinking the Lips were "cool" because they were getting so mainstream and mannered...but ultimately, I guess I don't really care even if that was true. Embryonic is a hell of an album, with, as I mentioned earlier, a "sheer totality of sound" that is borderline overwhelming on first listen.
Embryonic is a ballsy album to put out in this day and age. It's already perverse enough to make a double album, but to also make it the loudest and most experimental thing you've ever done--I would argue it's also their weirdest, mainly because it's not self consciously/ironically weird like their others--is, well...it's actually kind of funny now that I think about it. Just as I ended up loving Tortoise's Beacons Of Ancestorship because that band was returning to exploring new ideas and the more experimental elements of their music, Embryonic feels, at least in my heart, like a comeback from a band I had mostly written off as fun but not terribly interesting or chance taking. This album is definitely not for everyone, but if that's the worst thing I can think of to say about something then I'm generally sure I have something truly great on my hands.
Cliff's Notes Version
If your favorite Flaming Lips song is something like 'Do You Realize??' and you think the best thing about the Flaming Lips is their psychedelic spectacle live shows, then Embryonic is not for you. If you wish the Lips would make the most experimental, loud, and psychedelic album of their career, and make it a double album, then Embryonic is for you...and you're the sort of person I want to party with you.