I have only once encountered Flaming Lips live in person. It was last year, on a foggy, slightly moist, late spring evening at Bad Bonn Kilbi, a tiny festival tucked away in the rolling hills of Switzerland. A strange affair, it was more like a rich kid’s birthday party than a music festival. The limited lineup featured only prime cuts of the latest hype, beefed out with a few legends of “never normally on tour” status, catering to the needs of the 800 or so rich, young and hip locals. As the sun set upon the dew-kissed fields of Düdingen, the dampness of the day began to linger a little too long. The lamps of the barely lit backstage proceeded to throw foreboding shadows across the corrugated shells of the vacant caravans huddled beneath the arms of the great oaks.
I had been invited to join Jandek that year for an extremely last-minute improv show, along with guitarist Pete Swanson and drummer Julian Sartorius. The whole business was rather surreal and, combined with my lethargic state, resulted in a dreamlike veil clouding my consciousness. I can still see it now… it began with an apprehensive dart through the late-night drizzle, pushing through the Popeye limbs of the spider-webbed trees in search of warmth and shelter. I saw a light… a hazy puff of powder-pink smoke, a slug-trail of glitter, Martian faces painted shocking blue, heavily dusted in a mantle of fairy powder, draped in Lola’s canary-yellow bower. The sparsely hung torches brought filmic lustre to the cluster of wagons and illuminated the disheveled lion’s mane of Wayne Coyne and his band of forest nymphs. Dressed to the hilt in bleached white Elvis frills, it was, of course, the Flaming Lips. These psychedelic space cadets certainly left a lasting impression and so when I heard that two members of this magical troupe were to take on the murky waters of prog-kraut-rock, I was intrigued.
Musik, Die Schwer Zu Twerk is the six-song debut by Electric Würms, which is mainly Flaming Lips members Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd, alongside Nashville-based experimental-psych quartet Linear Downfall, whom Coyne has described as “such good musicians and such freaks” — two essential qualities for this kind of music. Since late last year, Coyne and Drozd have been leaving clues all over Twitter about what they were hatching. Linear Downfall joined Drozd in a three-day studio session of musical chairs, the fruits of which were handed over to Coyne, who then sprinkled his magical potions all over it, modifying, mystifying and dubbing out.
Both prog and kraut-rock have been ripped for years for featuring too many men with long hair taking themselves too seriously. The Lips, on the other hand, have become renowned for irony and humour packaged in the most extrovert way. The album title Musik, Die Schwer Zu Twerk, which roughly translates as Music That Is Hard to Twerk To, implies that they intend to mix things up a little. From the off, “I Could Only See Clouds” shows humour, and Drozd’s (I think) voice rings like an innocent choirboy, soon to be ravaged by the French noise-scene-esque guitar rips that carve shapes all over it. “Futuristic Hallucination” is a dreamscape whose jamming beat is left exposed, its bare bones gradually weaved around and cushioned by much reverb and what I sense is Coyne’s judicious editing.
“The Bat” veers towards trip-hop, the sirens lure you in with the help of dragged beats, their heavily distorted angelic lullabies bringing you ever closer to the rocks; but you never crash, you just park up in the port of Bristol. Unfortunately, Portishead’s “Machine Gun” is a little too close a reference, turning this into more of a pastiche than an original work. The dub begins to intensify as we enter “The Second Time,” with its extended reverb trails of the late ‘70s dub-punk scene. Twinkling synths, steady beats and heavy bass lines detail a desert expanse; the electric slices glide like ten-pence pieces over the roll-and-win conveyor belts of Brighton Pier, the hypnotic drums providing a steady bed for the other elements to freewheel upon. But the elements just seem too rigid, as if they were mapped into the 4×4 grids of Coyne’s computer software, and the track never quite reaches a peak.
On track five, “Transform,” which Coyne has described as “a Diplo-inspired Planet of the Apes theme,” they seem to go back to what they do best: ROCK! This is the most Flaming Lips track of the lot; it’s as if, after all that patience, they were finally allowed to release, jump off the highest diving board, splash around and be reckless. The quivering, Theremin-like sound carries a clear Silver Apples vibe and the jam summons the spirit of a rebellious Miles Davis. By comparison, the final track, a cover of Yes’ 1972 warhorse, “Heart of the Sunrise,” feels a bit like a swim in the rough, frigid British sea, and then getting out into the even colder, whipping beach winds under the overcast sky, with only a sandy towel awaiting you, shortly followed by the realisation that you now have to get back into stiff jeans with sandy feet, in full view of the quivering grannies. In other words, things end with a whimper.
I’m not sure if I would consider Musik, Die Schwer Zu Twerk a great piece of art but I admire it as a bold experiment and an investigation into the unknown. It’s definitely more credible than churning out another safe record, and yet I can’t quite take it seriously. Then again, I don’t think I was ever meant to.