The Flaming Lips
The Strobo Trip: Light and Audio Phase Illusions Toy
Styles: psychedelic, prog-rock, kosmische
Others: Can, Genesis, Ash Ra Tempel
“It sounds ridiculous,” asserts Wayne Coyne when asked about the length of The Flaming Lips’ six-hour-long song “I Found A Star On The Ground.” And probably for the media-saturated ADHD generation, for which the mental schema of a pop song is a three-minute template molded and transmitted by the music industry, the idea is indeed quite ridiculous. Actually, after decades of incestuous genre-reproduction, most commercial pop songs have mutated into commonplace aberrations: remove the repeated segments, the bridges, the fillers, the pointless intros and outros, and all that is left are easy hooks manufactured for profit, jingles purposed for mass production and mass consumption. These predefined structures work in a self-censored manner as well, mutilating creativity and preventing any kind of musical-expanded experimentation, imposing at the same time pseudo-listening habits in the context of several musical practices: the inherited idea of music as entertainment for the bourgeoisie, music as an ornamental background where it really doesn’t matter if a song is three minutes or three-hundred-and-sixty minutes long, provided that it exists as a commodity for consumption.
This massive song, from the three-track Strobo Trip (just one of the many weird music projects the Lips have been releasing lately, this time on USB accompanied by a spinning disc toy with strobo light), constitutes then a shocking statement for this era, contradicting the industry guidelines and the culturally-conditioned predisposition in listeners. Musically, this song is very difficult to define as a whole: It’s not exactly a suite of sound fragments assembled to create a narrative through common motifs or tonal structure, as flamboyant prog-rock supergroups commonly did in the 70s. It’s also not a tripped-out, uncontrolled drug-induced improvisation in the fashion of some Krautrock or psychedelic acts, where the lack of a clear structure takes distance from the notion of ‘song.’ It also doesn’t resemble the hour-long guitar-masturbation sessions of some prog-metal bands from the 80s (which now, in comparison, fall short of being called ‘epic’ again), or Eno-influenced generative music, or absurdly augmented monotonous drones obtained by semi-aleatoric processes (Bull of Heaven). Not even some instrumental post-rock journeys come close to the scale and form the Lips are proposing here. But amazingly, the song contains elements from all of the above, and it can be best described as a set of variations on an original ‘shorter’ song — composed by multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd — sequentially organized to resemble, in part, perpetual videogame music. The band tries to stretch every single bar in the song as widely and freely as possible, searching for every achievable timbral combination, melodic development, and studio trickery available, like taking a regular song, dissecting it, and watching every tissue through a microscope for extended periods of time, inspecting and expanding the musical content contained in every fragment of it.
Herewith is a linear, fast-forwarded (and lame) attempt to describe the song (watch also The Flaming Lips companion to the song, lasting nearly 24 minutes):
(0:00:01) A few seconds of ongoing dissonance launch a solid and powerful rhythm section (hypnotic bass plus complex tight drum patterns, similar to Can’s “Mother Sky”) when (0:03:10) a simple but effective short lullaby-like melody appears for the first time, serving as the main musical motif of the song and announcing the several hour-long lucid dream to come. (00:19:04) An unnerving high-frequency square-wave stays for more than 10 minutes, including an interesting duet for the bothersome pitch and some jazzy drums. (00:37:32) A slight semitonal variation on the vocal melody, after a series of sustained notes on guitar accompanied by groovy synth-bass arpeggi. (1:02:27) Bursts of distortion in different frequency ranges combine to create a brief climax, leading to (1:04:12) a spacey variation on the main theme, with a vocoder-like voice and occasional wobbling effects, followed by (1:25:18) noise explosions trying to demolish the solid rhythmical skeleton until (1.35:40) the bass and drums are finally defeated and a long restful interlude starts, with Sean Lennon’s otherworldly transmission reading the names of donors to the project (which benefit the Central Oklahoma Humane Society and The Academy of Contemporary Music at UCO), interspersed with distorted guitar beams and soft melodic synthesizer lines that slowly turn into prolonged aerial soundscapes formed by (1:58:00) mellotron clouds — one of the most pensive and introspective parts of the song, probably a moment where the listeners will ask themselves whether they’ll make it through the whole thing. (2:26:32) Disturbing atonal shards give way to (2:31:25) some powerful clapping and (2:41:20) danceable piano chords followed by a creepy, two-voice version of the main theme. (3:19:43) Playful astral permutations with plenty of electronic tricks, spanning almost one hour until it subtly transforms into more straightforward prog-rock territory through vocal arrangements and instrumental parts, quoting early Tangerine Dream (4:22:00) and Genesis (4:35:55). An uneasy section starts unveiling (5:03:15) with mellow keyboards and ethereal chants interrupted by gradually noisier effects, when suddenly (5:34:38) a minimalistic keyboard arpeggio launches (5:35:50) probably the funkiest section in the piece, presenting new thematic material for several minutes, until the final celestial segment closes this life-changing musical event and then (6:00:01) “OOH SHIT”: a distorted echo’d male voice stutters — in what actually corresponds to the beginning of “Evil Minds,” the next and final song of the EP — as if realizing that listening to the six-hour song in a sitting could have caused some damage to cognitive functions.
The futility of my attempt to describe “I Found A Star On The Ground” is self-evident: it is meant to be experienced. Sometimes, as the minimal school knows, extended repetition is what dissociates the listeners from their subjective time perception and immerses them into the music’s temporal realm. And thus, it is a challenging experience, a song that demands much more patience, attention, and dedicated time from the listener than the average song. It might not be mind-blowing in every single section — it can be alternately boring, exhausting, even annoying — but that’s the whole point: an endurance test confirming the fact that the act of listening is never passive. If the length of the song constitutes an aesthetic-political statement by itself, it is the actual musical content and its multiple mutations that, in the end, make it a remarkable achievement by a band with almost 30 years of existence, motivated once again by the freedom obtained by moving away from the music industry. The colossal temporal dimension of this piece, allowed in part by the digital formats (even the version available via SoundCloud had to be chopped in three parts), has no post-Wagnerian megalomaniac pretensions or philosophical ambitions about trying to recreate the eternal spiral of history and time: as arrogant as the six-hour concept may sound, the song never loses its humbleness. The Flaming Lips learned long ago that no matter how experimental or groundbreaking their music is or can be, the main goal pursued — by them and by their fans — is to have fun.
[And, of course, just as soon as I’ve processed this newest Flaming Lips release, a new, even more ambitious project is streaming right now.]
01. Butterfly, How Long It Takes To Die
02. I Found A Star On The Ground
03. Evil Minds