At War With The Mystics
Warner Bros., 2006
REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 04/05/2006
It's hard not to think in terms of trilogies when two big-event albums, books or movies are released. Think the Matrix movies, the Lord Of The Rings books or a series of solid albums from artists (e.g. Radiohead's The Bends, OK Computer and Kid A trifecta). So when The Flaming Lips were making their latest album, At War With The Mystics, it's hard not to see this album as a perfect complement to their 1999 masterpiece The Soft Bulletin and their stellar 2002 release Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. But in true Flaming Lips fashion, the album refuses to snugly fit into this category.
At War With The Mystics is a stubborn little album. The album is far more a flashback to the band's earlier albums than a huge step forward for the band. And after three listens, it seems like the band is spinning their wheels a bit. But it's the best "artist spinning their wheels" album since The Beastie Boys' Ill Communication.
The album kicks off with "The Yeah Yeah Yeah" song (no relation to the arty New York trio). If you can ignore the kiddie chorus, the scratchy guitar riff grabs your ear enough to listen to the song's hypothetical question: "What would you with all your powers?" The song teeters from infectuos to annoying, but the rousing crescendo puts the song into the "win" category.
No so much luck with the second song, "Free Radicals." It's soulful in a Beck way (it could be that Wayne Coyne took some hints from the artist while they were touring), but it's the first time in ages when I could actually describe a Flaming Lips song as dull. With "Sound of Failure/It's Dark…Is it Always This Dark?", the disc begins to sound like a mellow acid-trip.
Drug references, political obsessions and '60s-era idealism are all over At War With The Mystics. "They see the sun go down, but they don't see it rise, " Coyne sings; the sunny lyrics permeating through the murky, overcast sound of "My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion." In "Vein Of Stars," Coyne takes a page from John Lennon's "Imagine" when he sings "If there ain't no heaven, maybe there ain't no hell."
Matching the drug references are sounds that are heavily rooted in 70s progressive rock and late-60s soul (even though they've been marketed by the media to be the house band for an intergalactic bar in the year 3000). Thankfully, bassist Michael Ivins and drummer/percussionist/catch-all ace Steven Drozd are up for the challenge…most of the time. "Wizard Turns On" has a 70s porno feel, but it just doesn't go anywhere.
"Haven't Got a Clue" has a pleasant, marching, scratchy guitar riff. The riff vaguely recalls Primus' "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver," but with a definite political slant: "Every time you state your case, the more I want to punch your face!" Coyne sings.
If "Haven't Got A Clue" wakes you from the sleepy early half of the album, "W.A.N.D." jolts you awake, taking the political talk of the previous song to a street-demonstration level. "We got the power now, motherf**kers!" hearkens back to Rage or maybe Public Enemy, at least in spirit.
Like Radiohead with Niles Godrich, The Flaming Lips seem to have gotten comfortable with producer Dave Fridmann. The relationship may start to bring in diminishing returns as much of At War With The Mystics has a "haven't I heard this from the band before?" feel. But Flaming Lips have always been a band where even at their most mundane, they're still a few light years ahead of their peers.