Experimental rock's most prolific band, The Flaming Lips, are touring through Indianapolis on April 29, performing in The Egyptian Room at Old National Centre one of their critically-acclaimed live shows, which can include costumes, balloons, puppets, video projections, complex stage lights and confetti. Members Wayne Coyne, Michael Ivins, Steven Drozd, Kliph Scurlock and Derek Brown are playing in support of their newest album, The Terror, a funereal sci-fi journey.
And 'most prolific' here doesn't mean that they've succeeded in every experiment, but that the sheer number of truly risky, bold, ambitious experiments they've conducted in is staggering.
Most of the things that they do are cool and artistically applauded. This is a band signed to Warner Brothers Records after a label representative watched the band nearly burn down a venue from their pyrotechnics in 1990. They - I imagine mostly Coyne, though - spent 7 years filming Christmas on Mars, a sci-fi jaunt that sits uncomfortably between parody and horror-thriller which premiered at Sasquatch! Festival. "Do You Realize??" off of 2002's Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots was voted their home state of Oklahoma's state song by a 51 percent majority. They released a series of EPs on flash-drives inside of gummy-bear material skulls, 4 CDs to be played simultaneously (Zaireeka, 1997), have done surprising collaborations with dozens of artists and were featured in the documentary The Fearless Freaks in 2005. They've won 3 Grammy Awards and have been nominated for just as many.
The flip-side of this experimenting is that some of the end results aren't received as well as others. For example: they've announced a collaborative album with Ke$ha titled Lipsha this year. They broke Jay-Z's Guinness World Record last year for the most concerts within 24 hours, The Lips playing 8 shows total. They recorded a 24-hour song which streams on loop from a special website and was released as a hard drive, packaged within an actual human skull, limited to 13 copies. The Lips wrote and contributed a song to the soundtrack for Wedding Crashers and Spiderman 3 - though that awful film isn't at all their fault. Some of these experiments come off as pretentious, some just don't seem to land the way they were intended to. In any case, you have to admire the ambition.
And not that these stories should make an impact on how anyone feels about the actual content of The Terror. The album was premiered live for free at an outdoor South By Southwest concert in March, but has since received mixed reviews. The record's narrative is intensely dark for The Lips, offering personal tragedy and depression as lyrical themes. Coyne's separation from his partner of 25 years and Drozd's (possible) relapse into heroin addiction seem like obvious influences for the album. Its dynamic of "love is life" to "no, love is death" transform the band's dream-pop sound into a space between trance and nightmare.
Whatever sort of dramatic change the group is going through, it seems that Coyne has traded the crowd-surfing hamster ball, an established icon of their live shows, for a doll representing a newborn baby, plugged into various chords and wires that light up. So, I guess if you can figure out what sort of thoughts inform that decision you're in a place to really absorb their new album. Either way, this is an experiment that I'd like to see to the end.