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Flaming Lips - At War with the Mystics Print E-mail
Monday, 01 May 2006
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    7
sound:    7
release year:    2006
label:    Warner Bros.
reviewed by:    Matt Fink

ImageAn anomaly in every sense of the word – a joyfully quirky one-hit wonder in the era of brooding grunge, a band that continues to add listeners as they become more esoteric, an avant-garde trio that plays jam band festivals – the Flaming Lips stand alone in the rock canon. In fact, in the history of indie rock, only Sonic Youth and the Fall have had as much staying power, as the Lips are arguably more vital now than they’ve been at any other point in their 23-year run. With their latest release, the Oklahoma trio is in the odd position of needing their 13th album to capitalize on the collective hopes of the two million people who bought 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, their breakthrough esoteric opus. Not surprisingly, with At War with the Mystics, they do so on their own terms.

Long rumored to be a return to the acid-fried garage rock of the albums they made 15 years ago, and a caustic rebuke to the Bush administration, At War with the Mystics is neither. Guitars do make their presence known, with the psychedelic funk riffing and falsetto cooing of “Free Radicals” sounding like an alternate universe pairing of Sly and the Family Stone and Prince. Similarly, “The W.A.N.D.” uses a deliciously gnarled fuzz guitar riff as its basis, resulting in the album’s best protest song and power-to-the-people rallying cry, not to mention the band’s best psych-rock groove since Transmissions From a Satellite Heart. With those two songs and a tasteful flurry of solos that turn up now and again, the Flaming Lips return to guitar rock is complete. Luckily, they remain masters of atmospheric synth-pop balladry, and the rest of the album finds them revisiting many of the same textures and sentiments that served them so well on their last two releases.

If Wayne Coyne has one exceptional gift as a songwriter, it’s his ability to find the universal thread that holds together every situation, so it makes sense that even his political writing would be marked by a determination to share blame with his targets. Opener “Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” sets the album’s quirky, uneven pace with an oddball choir chant riding a bounding backdrop of squelchy wah-wah guitars, handclaps and breezy Caribbean melodies. In typical Lips fashion, it’s an unlikely anthem, with sticky sweet verses and a massive stomping chorus, asking those who are eager to blame those in authority for the world’s problems, “With all your power/What would you do?” Increasingly, Coyne seems to create characters simply to empathize with them, and the somber dance-pop of “The Sound of Failure/It’s Dark … Is It Always This Dark??” allows him to illustrate an outcast female protagonist, lost contemplating death while being tormented by disposable pop divas and her own personal failings. By the middle of the album, all notions of a “guitar rock” concept are gone, with the subtle piano pop and chirping birds of “My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion” creating the setting for Coyne to use nature metaphors to create a shifting frame of reference for his narrator. Though he never seems pandering or maudlin, Coyne’s brand of optimism is becoming a bit too predictable at times, with this album’s version of Yoshimi’s standout “Do You Realize?” being a particularly obvious offender. “Don’t you believe them/ They’ll destroy you with your lies,” Coyne warns, almost seeming to grow jaded before countering in familiar fashion, “They only see the obvious/They see the sun go down/But they don’t see it shine.” The following “Vein of Stars” is a similarly sun-bleached bit of pop pontificating, with Coyne again pondering his place in the universe and whether or not it has any real meaning. Legitimate questions, of course, but he’s asked them before and somewhat more pointedly.

The misguided underdeveloped funk of “It Overtakes Me” segues into the somberly probing “The Stars are So Big, I am So Small … Do I Stand a Chance?” – two songs united in a single suite despite the fact that they happen to be the most stylistically opposed songs in the set. The squishy, somewhat tuneless disco of “Haven’t Got a Clue” is more interesting in concept than execution, as the song never quite congeals into anything particularly memorable over its meandering three-and-a-half minutes of computer blips, angelic harmonies, wind chimes and looped beats. The album makes a late rally with the lush pastel keyboards and surging ethereal gloss of “Pompeii Am Gotterdammerung” and the rousing Lennon-ish piano balladry of “Goin’ On” – but the album has already lost quite a bit of momentum by that point.

In the end, At War with the Mystics fails to reach the disarming soul-searching of The Soft Bulletin or the existential profundities of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, but it is arguably the most varied album the Flaming Lips have made in a decade. Though the heights on the album equal any on their previous releases, they’re notably fewer, and the album’s eclecticism simultaneously serves to leave the set lacking an obvious focal point.

To their credit, they’ve avoided making a desperate or grandiose attempt to capitalize on their now sizable audience, twisting their most trusted formulas ever so slightly and keeping their political musings understated enough that the album is in no danger of being dated in five years. For any other band, this would be a career-defining release. For the Flaming Lips, it’s simply another good album by a band that has defied logic at every turn.

As usual, the David Fridmann-produced Lips use a variety of atmospheric synths, gurgling computers and reverby vocals, with everything smoothed out into chilly ethereal layers. Throughout, the textures are hazy and encased in a thin layer of fuzz, making the more dynamic shifts between quiet verses and loud choruses even more pronounced. More than recent releases, this one features arrangements that are filled – almost cluttered – with stray guitar riffs, mutated bass voices and meandering keyboards constantly floating in and out of the mix. Though the album never really settles into a consistent groove, the vibrant mix of instruments and textures suits the eclectic nature of the album very well.

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