(4 out of 5)
When the Flaming Lips finally released their CHRISTMAS ON MARS movie last year, the soundtrack that accompanied it seemed to be a project-specific aberration. Though it fit the loopy, free-form vibe of the film, the score’s amorphous psychedelia was a sharp left turn away from the day-glo chamber-pop the Lips had been engaging in for most of the past decade. EMBRYONIC proves that it was not an aberration at all, but rather another major fork in the road in the Lips’ sonic evolution, as it expands, solidifies, and clarifies many of the musical ideas that were toyed around with on the soundtrack — resulting in a listening experience that can only be described as pleasantly difficult. There is little here to connect the sound of EMBRYONIC to anything the band has produced over the past quarter-century – even Wayne Coyne’s voice is treated beyond recognition on many of the cuts. Even more challenging: the melodies which have long anchored the Lips’ flights of sonic fancy are, on EMBRYONIC, sublimated in a sea of distorted synthetic gurgles. Instead, this is the post-modern odyssey into brain-squeezing musical freakouts that the band has long aspired to. Interstitial cuts like “Aquarius Sabotage” and “Scorpio Sword” combine sweeping melodrama, squelchy effects and red-level distortion, while more proper (and melodic) songs like “Evil,” “Silver Trembling Hands” and “Convinced of the Hex” are conventional only by comparison, suffused as they are with a dark, psychedelic quality that’s nothing like the shining, post-hippy optimism the group has come to be known for. The result is an album that is as magnificently (and probably intentionally) divisive and demanding as it is engaging and sonically rich. EMBRYONIC is not an album that yields its pleasures easily, but it does make one anxious to see where the band will take these ideas next.