Friday, September 18, 2009

The Flight From Convention

Flaming Lips – Embryonic (Warner Bros, 2009)
David Sylvian – Manafon (Samadhi Sound, 2009)

A new Flaming Lips album is always going to be a talking point. It’s unsurprising then that the nature and character of ‘Embryonic’ has already been well documented in publicity and interviews. It’s a massive double album, constructed largely from ‘jams’ in the studio, a move supposedly taken to liberate the group from the restrictions of the song form and to stop them from repeating themselves.

I certainly applaud the band’s willingness to adapt, although it is starting to look as if those brilliant companion albums ‘Zaireeka’ and ‘The Soft Bulletin’ might become twin albatrosses around the group’s collective neck. ‘Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots’ has not, at least for me, endured all that well – relying too much on quirks and production tricks. ‘At War With The Mystics’ may well have been a better record, but it felt dense and impenetrable in places.

Perhaps ‘Embryonic’ might have come as more of a shock if Wayne Coyne hadn’t already explained and justified it so thoroughly. Now that he has, its sound is relatively unsurprising – full of fuzzy noise, propulsive drum grooves (still reliant on that colossal, distorted Dave Fridmann sound) and heavily inspired by the likes of Can and the electric period Miles Davis groups.

Melody is clearly not a priority for the group here, and one of the most interesting changes is the way Wayne Coyne’s voice has now been subsumed into the overall texture of the music. On ‘The Soft Bulletin’, they made a clear virtue of his shaky pitch, presenting him as the very vulnerable, human heart experiencing a sense of cosmic awe. Now he sounds like a background figure, somewhat overwhelmed by the unhinged chaos surrounding him.

As a result, it’s the moments where everything relaxes and the music sleepwalks into a laconic drift that are most surprising. ‘Evil’ is eerie and appropriately sinister, whilst ‘I Can Be A Frog’ is tender and barmy in equal measure, albeit slightly undermined by unsubtle interjecting sound effects. Even better is ‘If’, which sounds like a more aquatic version of Neil Young’s theme from ‘Philadelphia’.

Elsewhere, there is much to enjoy, if you have the patience to trudge through the whole thing. There’s something gleeful and delirious about the chanting on ‘Worm Mountain’ and the opening ‘Convinced By The Hex’ makes for a suitably warped and disconcerting introduction. The frantic, glorious rush of ‘Silver Trembling Hands’ and the way it melts beautifully into its frazzled half-time chorus, is a definite highlight.

Sometimes, though, it has to be conceded that ‘Embryonic’ exposes the limitations of this approach to music making. For improvisation to work, it has to be unselfconscious, with inspired music emerging as a result of a natural, unforced interplay between the members of the ensemble. Yet this is not really what the Flaming Lips do. Their reputation has been built on careful orchestration and meticulous studio processes. In concert, when they are not busy with gesticulation and gimmicky showmanship, their performances consist of near-perfect facsimiles of the studio recordings. It would perhaps be too much to expect them to abandon this aesthetic entirely.

As a result, much of the supposed ‘randomness’ of ‘Embryonic’ sounds meticulously plotted and pre-ordained. When at its least successful, it sounds like a number of, well, ‘embryonic’ ideas stitched together. Yet there are so many ideas here – some worthwhile, whilst others lead the group up cul-de-sacs. At the very least, it invites careful repeated listening. It’s the sort of album that will inspire and frustrate in equal measure.

Embryonic is currently streaming at

By way of contrast, David Sylvian is an artist who has been on a path away from the conventional song form for quite some time now. His output has been sporadic, but has always seemed like the result of a clear and driven mission, if not of complete repudiation of his past, then at least in search of radical new directions. It worked brilliantly on ‘Blemish’, a genuinely caustic and provocative record, on which Sylvian sought some kind of catharsis following the collapse of his marriage. It featured contributions from the late, brilliant avant-garde guitarist Derek Bailey and from electronic artist Christian Fennesz.

One of the major characteristics of Sylvian’s recent work has been an attempt to escape from the restrictions of time and rhythm. Like ‘Blemish’, ‘Manafon’ has no drums or percussion, and has a floaty, dreamy atmosphere. Some might argue that Sylvian is more interested in ‘pure sound’ than music here and, as such, ‘Manafon’ does seem more like the product of an art installation than a studio collaboration between experienced musicians. All this reminds me of Ian Carr’s warnings about the limitations of a certain approach to free improvisation. Whilst he had great admiration for the likes of Evan Parker, he also claimed that attempting to avoid time was usually futile – ‘as soon as you play a group of notes, you’re playing in time’.

Whilst ‘Manafon’ adopts a similar approach to Blemish, with Fennesz returning to play a greater role on laptop and guitar, it’s a notably calmer work. Even amidst its references to tortured poets and ‘random acts of senseless violence’, it’s Sylvian’s voice, with its hint of vibrato, that’s placed firmly in the foreground, representing a peculiar sort of serenity. Here is someone who has, at least supposedly, abandoned false idols in search of something pure and crystalline.

This music is pregnant with silence, space and air. The musical contributions from Evan Parker amongst others are quiet and mysterious rather than furious or wild. It’s not fair to say that this music lacks melody – it’s more a case of the improvised backdrops inspiring Sylvian to improvise his own melodies. When these integrate well with the music, as on the opening ‘Small Metal Gods’ and ‘Emily Dickinson’, the results are hypnotic. On the longer pieces, though, any sense of shape or flow tends to dissipate, and the results are rather opaque mood pieces.

‘Manafon’ would have worked brilliantly as an EP or a mini-album. But with the entire full length album adopting this delicate, brush stroke approach consistently, it sounds much more like one continuous, overlong piece than a set of individual songs. I deeply admire the emphasis on space, but can’t help longing for some sort of contrast or surprise.

It could certainly be argued that ‘Manafon’ requires one hundred per cent total immersion and concentration to deliver its full rewards. But the individual statements of the musicians, however subtle and controlled, are fleeting and transient, over which Sylvian’s incantations are clearly intended to be transcendent. His intellectual and philosophical musings don’t always offer anything to connect with emotionally, a problem that did not afflict ‘Blemish’.

One has to admire Sylvian’s audacity. Like Scott Walker, he has distanced himself so thoroughly from his former life as a pop star that one now has to expect something challenging and deeply unconventional with every release. His last release with Nine Horses was a smoky treat – and his record label Samedhi Sound is beginning to establish itself as a source of stimulating, powerful music, not least the haunting, beautiful music of Mercury nominated Sweet Billy Pilgrim. Yet in his search for a transcendental, spiritual response to the dangers and chaos of the world, Sylvian may have produced a work which is ultimately rather difficult to enjoy and appreciate. It’s almost as if his music has been so purified that any sense of humanity – any rage, anger, love, passion has been excised in favour of a detached, impartial gaze. It’s arguable that he has done this very thoroughly and successfully but there will be divergent schools of thought as to whether this is a musical goal worth aspiring to or not.

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