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The Flaming Lips: Embroyonic (Album Review)

If new albums by Super Furry Animals, 50 Foot Wave, and the Flaming Lips are any indication, 2009 is smack in the middle of a new psychedelic age. Popism, rockism: please defer briefly to weirdism. The Lips have always been the most chthonic of the nouveau psychsters, and on the Oklahoma vets’ 12th studio album, they dive deep into the netherworld of human duality. This 70-minute epic (marketed as a double album, in the old-school sense) pairs ugliness with beauty on a host of auditory freakouts and creepy meditations: squawks of distortion and instrumental distress nestle up to twinkling Rhodes pianos and breathtaking ruptures of harmony.

In “Aquarius Sabotage,” what sounds like B-movie psychosis is augmented by grand waves of harp — it’s as if Alice Coltrane were to walk into a scuzz-punk bar. Likewise, the descending vocal lullaby in “The Sparrow Looks Up at the Machine” sweetly complements the rough industrial grind of its rhythm section, and “Silver Trembling Hands” juxtaposes nervous tension with breezy relief.

To add lyrical emphasis, frontman Wayne Coyne muses throughout on the inherent good in evil and vice versa, and how, ultimately, it’s all a gray area: “Man holds a gun/There’s no explanation/He shoots at the sun,” he sings in “The Ego’s Last Stand.” Like the Furries’ Dark Days/Light Years, Embryonic is made mostly of pulsating studio jams, and like 50 Foot Wave’s Power Light, it’s regularly assaultive — the kick-drum mic in “Your Bats” could be lodged in John Bonham’s soul. Unlike those releases, it’s unhinged, fragmented, and at odds with itself.

This is accessible music pushed to the very edge of accessibility, far away from the safety of the band’s song-oriented efforts At War with the Mystics and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. All due respect — the Lips did good as pied pipers for the freak-flagged populace, but this here underneath is some fertile soil indeed.