The Flaming Lips thirteenth studio offering is a difficult album in every sense of the word: difficult to love, difficult to decipher, and difficult to listen to. Perhaps it's the absence of traditional song writing in favour of space age ambience that makes the experience so unsettling. While it would be unfair to expect Wayne Coyne and co to re-tread past glories, there's always been a sense of underlying fun to their brand of psychedelic wackiness. The Terror, as its name suggests, jettisons any sense of fun leaving a bleak soundscape which is sure to divide fans.
While there is artistic merit here, it's a record that becomes so self-involved in the intricacies of the noises that phase in and out of your headphones, that Coyne's distorted and repetitive vocals get pushed to the back of the mix. Although he's not really saying much to enlighten the whole experience, it's rather disconcerting that his contribution seems to be somewhat of an afterthought. The root of all this sprawling introspection and gloom seems to lie in the genesis of the project itself. Primarily recorded at the same time as previous collaborative effort Heady Fwends, but in a separate studio, the band used their downtime to create material completely at odds with their main project. That led to a rejection of traditional chord progressions and structures, which more closely embraced their psychedelic roots.
Depending on how far you want to dig into the lyrics, there are loose themes unifying the material here. It's trying to raise the question of how to face a world without love while time marches on. Coyne's lyrical fascination with the sun and heavens ('Look. The Sun Is Rising') seems more ominous than hopeful as the new dawn brings new problems. However, the highbrow nature of the themes also serves to distance the listener. While many of The Flaming Lips' previous records have worked as concept albums, individual songs have also been able to stand on their own. Yet The Terror is such a dense soup of sounds and ideas that the unconventional nature of the tracks makes it almost impossible to separate them from the whole experience.
Taken as a space age opera of sorts, The Terror's sprawling and often mechanical musical heartbeat is an interesting experiment in minimalism. But its few endearing qualities are somewhat overshadowed by the knowledge that this doesn't appear to be a stepping stone to the next evolution of The Flaming Lips. It feels rather more like a self-indulgent musical detour that we maybe didn't need to take. When bands like Radiohead started to play with obscure sounds and percussion it's because they wanted to redefine themselves. In The Flaming Lips' case it sounds more like they were bored and were looking for an aural holiday from their day jobs.
So be warned, The Terror is a curiosity for the faithful, but really doesn't offer anything of note for those unwilling to sit through nearly an hour of ambience and weirdness. While it may be seen as a direct reaction to the critical and commercial success The Flaming Lips have garnered over the last 15 years, it would be surprising if it ends up as being any more than a footnote in their history.