(Warner Bros., 1995)
(Image from Wikipedia)
I’ve been a fan of The Flaming Lips for quite some time, but I had never gone very deep into their discography – mainly stuck to The Soft Bulletin/Yoshimi/At War With the Mystics (their critical success and immediately following). In anticipation of their upcoming album, The Terror, and having sampled their previous Embryonic (whose raucous sounds I attributed to going ‘back to their roots’), I thought I oughtta go back and check out some of their older albums and get a better feel for their earlier sound – I enjoy being able to ‘contextualize’ a sound/album within a band’s discography, and the more albums I hear of them, the better. Clouds Taste Metallic seemed to be viewed very favourably, so, I started there (I’ll admit it, I’m a cherry picker. Usually, when delving into a new band/new ‘era’ of a band, I will start with what appears to be the most-favoured rather than the first).
As I cued up the first track, “The Abandoned Hospital Ship”, I turned down the volume and put some distance between myself and the speakers, expecting an aural assault of high, piercing notes and feedback (these, after all, were the ‘early days’, before their commercial success and they were well-known as a noise-rock outfit). Much to my surprise, what I heard first was acoustic guitar, piano and Wayne Coyne’s searing, but gentle vocal. Even when the electric guitar enters the fray, it calmly echoes the vocal melody (though, soon after, its distorted cousin attempts the same thing and ends up being a funhouse mirror held up to the first). This album is not simply an aggregate of noise blasts stitched together but a display of excellent songwriting and musicianship throughout. The distortion is present much of the time, but never unseats the core of the songs happening.
Usually at that core is the unbelievable rhythm section of Michael Ivins (bass) and Steven Drozd (drums). Ivins plays in a wonderful flow, never boring, incorporating swells in his basslines like waves washing up and down the fretboard. Even in a straight one-note run, he manages to wobble it up with the occasional note to either side. Drozd, similarly, scarcely sits on a backbeat when he can be peppering in hi-hat or tom fills, and menacing everyones ‘phones with his distorted bass and snare, doling out rock-solid, rich rhythms without losing a drop of the beat.
That’s not say that all your hear is the sound of a four-piece band throughout the album. In addition to overdubbed guitars and the occasional swell of backing vocals from Coyne, sound effects are used on this album to great success. The sound of a filmstrip reeling runs over “The Abandoned Hospital Ship”; “Psychic Explorations of the Fetus With Needles” begins with synthesized ‘nature sounds’; “Guy Who Got a Headache and Accidentally Saves the World” has a cheering crowd, shouting ‘yeah!’ throughout, as well as a narrator describing the ‘scene’; “They Punctured My Yolk” begins and ends with what sounds like police radio chatter. The sparing, subtle way it’s done gives the impression that the album takes place in a slightly larger world apart from one just inside a studio.
Just a fantastic collection of songs. Each seem to have a simple enough centre to it, but at the same time, each is richly textured between the interlocking performances and the additional clangs, beeps and squeals coming from every direction. Totally at home in the alternative rock scene of the mid-90s from which it was birthed, but distinct from it as well – there is much more of a psychedelic edge to the proceedings that most groups had at the time. There’s a little touch of whimsy mixed in with the noise – all is not lost.