The Flaming Lips - And Heady Fwends

a complete brain-fuck of an album

The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends

Released originally as a spectacularly packaged, 4 disc vinyl set for Record Store Day earlier this year, The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends is a complete brain-fuck of an album. You can read many reviews, online and elsewhere, that appeared around the release of the album that will describe it as some kind of baffling, half-arsed record that doesn’t really make a lot of sense. In many ways, they’re right. It certainly doesn’t make a lot of sense, at least not to begin with, and it will certainly baffle you at times but this album is by no means half-arsed.

Ok, let’s get this out of the way quickly. There are a lot of guest stars on this album. Nick Cave, Erykah Badu, Yoko bloody Ono and Chris fucking Martin to name a few. (Actually, Chris Martin is dropped for the CD release, a gesture that some of you may be thankful for.) Bon Iver turns up at one point, as does Edward Sharpe and his Magnetic Zeroes but, do you know what? That doesn’t really matter. The guest list is basically a marketing ploy and a very clever one at that. The guest list gives this album a chance of reaching a wide audience. Trust me, if they weren’t attached, Heady Fwends would probably have never seen the light of day. It’s simply too abrasive, too experimental and too unsettling an album to gain traction on its own.  It’s the kind of album that record labels are afraid of because it’s not really here to entertain you. Heady Fwends will not put a smile on your face.

The Flaming Lips may well be the band that have spent the last decade or so throwing balloons and confetti around venues, serenading audiences with glove puppets of nuns while pouring bottles of fake blood in their eyes and running over the heads of their audience in giant hamster balls but here, on Heady Fwends, they’re not interested in giving you a good time. There’s a lot of fear and dark energy swirling around Heady Fwends and it makes for quite an unsettling listen.  I’m sure that each of the collaborators jumped at the chance to create something wild and wacky with Wayne Coyne and co but I wonder how many of them ended up with anything close to what their initial expectations were? I expect not many. The back and forth Twitter spat between Wayne Coyne and Erykah Badu certainly suggests that some initial friendships were, at the very least, strained during the making of the album.

It seems that many of the collaborations were done remotely, over a period of around a year,  although listening to the album as a whole (in either form) you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. 2011 was certainly an interesting one for the Lips. They announced to the world that they were going to release a new song every month but things were never going to be that simple in the Flaming Lips world, were they? The first track they released, Two Blobs Fucking, is available for you to find, in all twelve parts, on YouTube. The only thing is you’re supposed to play them all simultaneously. Yeah, have fun with that. A few EPs and other releases later, they came out with a six hour long track called, appropriately, 6 Hour Song (Found a Star on the Ground) and, as if that weren’t enough, they released a 24 hour track on Halloween (which is excellent, by the way Now by anybody’s standards, that’s quite prolific and while they were releasing them, it was difficult to understand exactly where they were heading with all of it. There certainly appeared to be little connection between each EP and the next but now, I’m not so sure.  Heady Fwends gathers up many of the EPs and other short form releases from that 2011 creative outpouring and combines  them into a 13 song cycle that will completely mess with your head. Again, this is not an album that will make you smile but the way it pieces together makes me feel that the band were heading in a steady direction. Whether the plan was a conscious one or otherwise, the disparate parts of The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends combine to make a totally powerful, utterly coherent whole. A dark, unsettling and at times quite disturbing whole, it must be said, but there’s way too much creativitiy, too much experimentation and too much enthusiasm on show here for you to dismiss it. It may take a while to come to terms with it, but when you do, Heady Fwends is quite a powerful album.

Sonically, it’s a pulsing, throbbing, squealing mess of distorted guitars and pulsing, monotonous synths for the most part – which is pretty standard for a Flaming Lips album, I know. Although those sounds come from the same territory they’ve mined since The Soft Bulletin, here they’ve started spending more time in the darker corners of that territory. Rummaging around in the darkness has resulted in a sonic palette so sharp, muscular and powerful that, at times, they seem to want to physically attack your ear drums. At times, this album may physically hurt you. Opener 2012 (You Must Be Upgraded) is a clear example. It simply bludgeons you repeatedly with what sounds like somebody grinding metal every few seconds.  Superman Made Me Want To Pee takes you on a very bad trip indeed, rushing headlong through a series of unsettling, heart pounding and relentless rhythms and distorted vocals before submerging itself into a kind of primordial soup of emptiness and ambient noise. That Ain’t My Trip is a powerful little rock song that’s been twisted and scarred so much that I half expect it to be soundtracking some new horror film and you haven’t heard anything until you’ve heard Nick Cave channeling Mark E. Smith on You, Man? Human??? – I won’t even attempt to describe that for you.  Then we come to I’m Working At NASA On Acid which has, on more than one occasion, actually brought on bouts of travel sickness when I’ve listened to it on public transport.  This is a dangerous album indeed.

There are moments of beauty in there. The ethereal vocals of Bon Iver are used to great effect on Ashes In The Air. In fact, if you were to watch the star gate sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey and use this as the soundtrack you’d end up watching Bowman travel, not into a new stage of human evolution, but instead descend into a deep, psychological depression. Ashes In the Air is the soundtrack of someone having quite an existential crisis and I find it rather wonderful. Helping The Retarded To Know God is rather pleasant, it must be said, although I don’t have that much time for Edward Sharpe and I do think it’s the weakest track on the album but it adds a bit of light relief to such a bombastic album and the spacey cover of The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face (written by Ewan MacColl, but many of you may be more familiar with the Roberta Fleck version) is undeniably gorgeous. It creeps up on you, almost as if you’ve been floating through space and you discover traces of the song drifting in and out of a bunch of interstellar radio waves. It’s quite a beautiful and relaxing end to a quite exhilarating album.

It may not be for everyone. I’m sure it will have its fair share of detractors but, for my money, it’s a creative masterpiece. It’s the darker, mirror image of the Soft Bulletin. If The Soft Bulletin was the band looking out into space and searching for something beyond, Heady Fwends is what happens when you’ve stared into the void for too long. I tell you, Nietszche would have had a field day with this.

“Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”