Tuesday, August 20, 2013

"The Terror" of the Flaming Lips: A Phone Call from Venus

When the Mars rovers made planetfall, it reignited my childhood interest in the space program. For a brief period after Spirit and Opportunity set down in 2004, I surfed around the internet looking for other successful extraterrestrial touchdowns and found out that nearly thirty years prior, Russia’s Venera 9 successfully sent back surface pictures of the inhospitable surface of Venus. My imagination, fueled by a lifetime of fanciful sci-fi and computer-enhanced images, ran wild about what might actually be brewing underneath the planet’s thick, sulfuric atmosphere. The lander barely lasted an hour before it was reduced to slag, but it managed to return this panorama.

Great. More rocks. It could have been taken from a dried-up creek bed.

Although the reality is not as fanciful as my imagination might have been, these are still extraordinary pictures. They are particularly amazing framed as they are the Cold War space race, when first steps onto other worlds began unlocking the unbelievable realities that were previously relegated to fantasy.

Judging from the buzz around The Terror, I expected it to be similarly bleak. The Flaming Lips’ previous release Embryonic, which was a personal favorite album in 2009, intentionally moved away from the sunny shimmer of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and the classic Soft Bulletin.  As predicted, The Terror continues its predecessor’s exploration of the Lips’ darker side  For me, it brings to mind the time when 70s science fiction was televised through the now- archaic medium of UHF and VHF radiowaves. I remember a lot of sci-fi from that time, like Planet of the Apes, Space 1999, and Jason of Star Command, through a wavy, oversaturated lens.

These grainy memories resonate with the then-futuristic overtones of the now-ubiquitous Moog synthesizerThe Terror capitalizes on the sense of post-apocalyptic desolation hidden within the cultural memory of these timbres, like a message sent by a Venusian castaway, inexplicably living within the inhospitable ruins of an impossible civilization.  It obliquely outlines the axis upon which a person begrudgingly accepts loneliness in order to survive, relating this experience though homesick phone calls blurred with static and yearning. There is a certain peace that may come when this kind of separation is accepted, but The Terror is not pretty enough to be peaceful, nor is it ugly enough to be bitter. It is the soundtrack to the liminal space between these two states of being.

These are hardly the impressions that made The Flaming Lips popular. In their more public side, the Lips have historically been uplifting either musically or lyrically, if not both. Like Daft Punk’s most recent album, however, The Terror is a challenging release, but it’s probably not a surprise to the dedicated Flaming Lips’ fan. While their more definitive albums were able to balance the cosmic positivity of Yes with the unsettling lunacy of Pink Floyd, they have always harbored an experimental and dark side. The Terror puts this aspect of the Lips on prominent display. It’s not a change in modality as much as it is a change in tone, which may make it a hard sell.  Its is, however, a decisively cohesive and successful artistic statement, and certainly worth deeper scrutiny.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Moonrise Over the Grid: Slowly Refocusing with FB

If you have followed the blog regularly, it’s probably not news to you that it has lain somewhat fallow this year. This is a source of frustration for me. Since I moved into the new house, my interests and responsibilities have shifted a bit. In addition to continuing my aikido practice and being blessed with the task of raising the Little One, a house requires a bit more maintenance in comparison to a two-bedroom apartment. More time-consuming, however, is the expanding CrossFit group that I have been hosting in my garage. If you hit the “CrossFit” tab at the bottom of this posting, a very vague history of my training (and its concomitant soundtrack) will emerge, including my first workouts and my certification experience. There is, however, very little about this recent life change simply because the experience itself has superseded my writing.

I also feel like I have written myself into a corner. I like to review music by weaving it into the experiences that surround it. Sometimes this works well, but sometimes it is, admittedly, embarrassingly terrible. This has been more complicated recently because the music I am invested in doesn’t always directly connect with the most important experiences I am having, many of which revolve around my lengthening path as a CrossFit coach, music teacher, parent, aikido practitioner, and general 21st century eccentric. Some linkages present themselves in retrospect more clearly, but even so, they sometimes illuminate a tenuous relationship between the music I am listening to and my shifting internal commentary.

So this post, my 200th, serves as a warning and an apology to my readership.  At the risk of becoming too broad for a singular audience, I will be indulging in a more non-sequitur writing style. I may not always directly link a particular album to a specific experience. These divergent narratives, however, often converge on the whole of my world. I still want to be able to capture this dialogue and look back on it with the clarity of the written word.  Giving myself permission to write in this fashion will, I hope, free me to do so.

So here goes


By June of this year, deadmau5 had been relegated to the WOD playlist, and Daft Punk’s new CD left me a bit confused. I was listening more and more to pop songwriting. I thought that perhaps the momentum generated by Ratatat and M83 in recent years had died down, but of course, when I notice that something has been ignored in my playlist, my interest seems to rise. Enter the F*ck Buttons.

Aside from challenging me to render their name in text while retaining some degree of professionalism, the F*ck Buttons are a little difficult for me in other ways, as well. Slow Focus successfully extracts and extrapolates on the electronic aspects of Daft Punk’s Tron: Legacy soundtrack. As is the trend with many contemporary soundtracks, however, the Fu*k Buttons trade clearly defined melodies for an incredibly broad spectrum of sounds and timbres. What melodic material there is on the album is imbedded in grooves and riffs. Make no mistake, its pervasive “Moonrise Over the Grid” atmosphere is compelling and its really growing on me.  A central issue I am grappling with as I do this, however, is to decide if exchanging timbral interest with melodic structure is an even trade.