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Turning their backs on the commercial, Oklahoma pop oddballs go back to their experimental roots – with sublime results
Peter Murphy, 14 Oct 2009
The electric piano is one peculiar instrument. Invented in the late 1920s, it reached an apex of popularity on 1970s soft-pop radio ballads. But it had also led a secret life among the avant garde: Ray Manzarek’s will o’ the wisp runs on ‘Riders On The Storm’ for instance, or Herbie Hancock’s Fender Rhodes playing with Miles Davis’s early 60s quintet, and most notably, Joe Zawinul’s luminous firefly sounds on In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. It’s also the most conspicuous instrument on the Flaming Lips’s Embryonic, which, according to Wayne Coyne, was envisioned as an homage to classic messy double- and triple-sets such as Sandinista and Physical Graffiti.
A brief autobiographical digression. The first time this writer heard Clouds Taste Metallic it felt like the bit in Wizard of Oz where everything goes from Depression-era monochrone to fantastical technicolour. I spent one summer in the mid ’90s trawling the bargain bins for the entire Lips back catalogue, and when they ascended to the status of PT Barnum alt-rock phenomenon I thought the world a better place for it.
And yet, I didn’t even bother buying At War With The Mystics.
Well, now the Oklahomans have re-entered a stranger phase of the moon. Embryonic may be the band’s most uncompromising record since In A Priest Driven Ambulance, an alternative Antonioni soundtrack that draws on churning day-glo funk and damaged acid rock, using a palette of sounds that includes quacking wah-wah, filthy bass, eerie bells, harp arpeggios and supple, sinewy rhythms.
By god, it’s good to hear Steven Drozd back behind a drum kit. Mr Drozd, as anyone who’s seen the Fearless Freaks documentary will know, is the band’s secret weapon, a charismatic all-rounder who consistently distinguishes himself as an arranger, keyboardist, guitarist and singer. He’s also the most bad-assed rock drummer since John Bonham. The man’s sound, feel and technique are astonishing, and here he once again lets rip with successions of serpentine long-line loops somewhere between abstract expressionist jazz and Fillmore Auditorium psyche-out. The looser framework of tracks like ‘Aquarius Sabotage’ and ‘See the Leaves’ allows him to play out of his skin, and it’s a joy to behold.