This next episode in a series of collaborations — following the reinterpretation of the seminal Dark Side of The Moon and this year’s releases with Prefuse 73 and Neon Indian — finds veterans The Flaming Lips teaming up with the electrifying duo (and also veterans) Lightning Bolt. Not surprisingly, the title of the four songs contain plenty of references to exploration, outer space, tripping, and drug consumption, with the first couple tracks attributed to “The Flaming Lips with Lightning Bolt” and the other two to “Lightning Bolt with The Flaming Lips.” This apparently redundant distinction constitutes the core of the musical concept of this short but concise project: to demolish the hierarchies implicit in musical collaborations.
While oftentimes a lesser-known artist who collaborates with a more prominent one is subordinated to the latter’s ideas and vision (e.g., Brian Chippendale and Björk), this collaboration between The Flaming Lips and Lighting Bolt places both on the same level, letting the ideas grow freely while also highlighting the pointlessness of trying to demarcate the musical boundaries that distinguish each band, as if some specific contributions could be objectively measured or quantified. Yes, you can find within these songs sudden bursts of noise that can obviously be attributed to the hand of Lightning Bolt, or ethereal and spacey soundscapes reminiscent of more recent Flaming Lips expeditions, but the overall aural experience resembles diving into a sonorous river at the point where two different streams are merging: it is a rather natural combination of two powerful forces continuously flowing, where the individual elements are inseparable and indiscernible.
“I’m Working at NASA on Acid,” the first track and true highlight of the album, is an ambitious piece of almost epic proportion, an experimental three-part battle that could be used as soundtrack for a Space Western duel scene (including slow tempo, dramatic backing vocals, occasional crashing cymbals, and an overall ‘Morriconesque’ mood). After three minutes or so of cinematic setting, the leading voice gets distorted and the whole crew takes off unexpectedly, launching the listener/traveler fiercely into hyperspace with no safety belt. Some moments of truly uplifting chaotic beauty ensue, until the fuel runs out and the initial section is cleverly reintroduced. “I Want To Get High But I Don’t Want Brain Damage” radically changes the mood built into the first track, interspersing sections with a marching bass riff (reminiscent of Embryonic’s most powerful moments), a nervy growling voice (think of Tom Waits making a cameo in Christmas on Mars), and sparse drones that temper the aggressiveness and let the song breathe.
In the next two songs, Lightning Bolt take control of the musical ship and start deconstructing the previous material by separating the main musical motifs and translating them into free-form structures, sacrificing compositional details for the sake of spontaneity. “NASA’s Final Acid Bath” is the most tripped-out piece on the EP, a strident jam with no clear underlying structure apart from some kosmische-influenced sustained synthesizer chords holding all the turbulence together. Strangely, the noisy bits here are warm and friendly, hypnotically surrounding and carrying the listener along while never reaching the exhausting and relentless rhythm section usually found in the music of Lightning Bolt. “I Want To Get Damaged But I Won’t Say Hi” is quite different, starting with a well-crafted counterpoint between the syncopated mechanical drums and a high-pitched plucking guitar, before finishing with a drumless arrangement for several streams of noise, arpeggios, and guttural sounds, with plenty of grunting, roaring, and grumbling.
Apart from the musical merits of this EP, this collaboration proves The Flaming Lips one step ahead of all the new millennium apocalyptic prophecies (decline of the music industry, death of the album, catastrophic transition from the solidness of the physical storage formats to the liquidity of network-based music delivery services, and so on), moving on in the same fashion as other big names (take for instance Radiohead’s latest remixes series or Björk’s upcoming Biophilia project). This means, getting progressively away from the traditional music industry distribution channels and instead choosing gummy fetuses and skulls as receptacles for their new material (“eat your way to the new music,” claims the band in their website) and releasing audiovisual experiments (e.g. “Two Blobs Fucking”) on their ‘free’ YouTube channel. It is precisely this independence and freedom that allow the band to come up with projects as interesting as this one.