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

C_Venera09_Processedby Dr. Spin

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. flaminglips

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 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.

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