Tag Archives: noise-rock

#11: The Flaming Lips – Clouds Taste Metallic

(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.


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#6: Various Artists (Linear Downfall, New Fumes, Spaceface, Stardeath, White Dwarves) – Playing Hide and Seek With the Ghosts of Dawn

(Lovely Sorts of Death, 2012)


Being intimately familiar with In the Court of the Crimson King, I was curious to hear this re-interpretation of the entire album by the Flaming Lips and their stable of bands (most recently seen covering Dark Side of the Moon), and delighted to see that this classic was still influencing and inspiring bands to this day. It’s a monster of an album to approach covering in its entirety, so the effort alone is admirable.

For the most part, I think the performances on this album have managed to capture the sense of shock and awe that King Crimson created initially with their debut album and when they left a crowd in stunned silence in Hyde Park after their performance of “21st Century Schizoid Man”. The squeals are noisier and numerous. This time around, feedback disintegrates into pixels and sharp bombs of clattering cymbals, guitar histrionics, and synth lines are chopped up and spread around the canvas available in bursts, wreaking havoc with the already tentative time signatures.

Having said all that, however, this is not an album that revels in the loose free-jazz excesses that the original album enjoyed – and if it is, the excesses are heaped on top of each other, rather than stringing the listener along with a handful of plucked notes at a time as in the original “Moonchild”. This one clocks in a little under the time of the original and maintains mostly just the nucleus of songs, with plenty of room to go madly off in all directions, should the mood strike them.

The sense of bombast is played with considerably on this version. “Epitaph” is covered in a thick layer of fuzz with a rather humble vocal, which sets the original on its head, and portrays well the sort of lost anguish evoked in the songs lyrics while – turning a grand declaration into a sort of meandering melancholy (though the crescendo towards the end still retains its noisy pomp); “Moonchild”, however, is given the full band treatment immediately, whereas the original sort of crept in on Fripp’s guitar strings and never got too high above a whisper.

My one major criticism of the album is that the vocals seem too familiar with the material and don’t deliver the kind of straight-faced earnestness that Greg Lake did – the melodies are batted around as if they had been heard a thousand times before. There’s kind of an “we all know how the album goes” sort of feel to it, which I think, to an extent, is true – those most interested in checking out the album with be those familiar with the original – but the vocals just seem like a rote addition to the chaos happening in the background. In “The Court of the Crimson King”, a large effort is made of subduing the melody to a static whisper, perhaps to contrast the huge backing track, but it isn’t quite pulled off – the lyrics are too fantastical to pull off such a deadening.

This is quite a fun excursion in re-imagination, especially considering it’s one of my favourite albums and I can see every divergence. The noisiness is great and in the spirit of the original, and it definitely works as an introduction either way – from King Crimson fans to the Lips and co. or vice versa – but it doesn’t quite stack up to the original for me.


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