With “The Terror,” the lights go out on The Flaming Lips’ psychedelic midway, leaving ringmaster Wayne Coyne to stumble and grope his way through the darkness. And predictably, he does not like what he’s feeling.
While the brown-acid fuzztones of 2009′s “Embryonic” occupied a largely negative head space, “The Terror” is not hallucinatory in the least. It is bleak but frighteningly clear-eyed and confrontational, which makes for a more unsettling experience once Kliph Scurlock’s martial drums and Steven Drozd’s razor-funk guitar on the opening “Look … the Sun Rising” give way to purgatorial drones and blips. It is an album powered by pulse and shaped by serotonin imbalance, populated by sad souls “walking away on a bridge to nowhere,” as Coyne sings on “Try to Explain.”
At the dark heart of “The Terror” is “You Lust,” in which Coyne dishes out and takes close-to-the-bone critiques about moral failings. “You Lust” goes on for nearly 10 minutes, with Coyne and guest vocalist Sarah Barthel of Phantogram backed by industrial blasts of static and Krautrock repetition as they exchange brutal truths. From there, “The Terror” never really gets easier, closing with “Always There, In Our Hearts,” a pretty title fronting a pretty defeated sentiment — Coyne finishes the album by repeating the word “overwhelmed” as the full force of the Flaming Lips’ drone machine gives way to crowd noise.
“The Terror” does represent a nearly wholesale rebuilding of the Lips’ sound, offering the reward of frequently exceptional headphone music for those who can brave the emotional undertow, and even while baring his fears and resentment for all to experience, Coyne takes an understated vocal approach — his singing is almost spectral, emanating from a far remove. “The Terror” will leave plenty of Lips fans as overwhelmed as Coyne feels in “Always There, In Our Hearts,” and these are people who have stayed with the group through both its ebullient reveries and its challenging experiments encased in candy skulls. But this is part of the bargain of being a career Flaming Lips fan: occasionally the race for the prize takes a dark detour.
— George Lang