Judging from their 12th full-length album At War with the Mystics, Oklahoma oddballs the Flaming Lips are through being quiet. Big, loud, and throbbing with prog rock impulses, Wayne Coyne and company largely dispense with the fragile pop compositions that marked their previous two albums, 1999’s The Soft Bulletin and 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, in favor of bombastic guitars and dense layers of electronic frippery that annoy and delight in equal measure.
“Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” kicks the disc off in eccentric style, fusing ’50s hand-jive with a surging guitar riff borrowed from the pinnacle of ’70s arena rock; freed from navel-gazing amid subtle blurbs and boings, Coyne still lets fly with inspirational bon mots (“We’ve got the power now, motherfuckers, it’s where it belongs”) amid the cacophony, managing uplift despite the blood and thunder. “Free Radicals” is crunchy, booming pop-rock segueing into the surprisingly poignant “The Sound of Failure/It’s Dark…Is It Always This Dark??” giving way to the lush psychedelia of “My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion”—Coyne’s high, thin tenor threads through Steven Drozd and Michael Ivins’s playful, druggy sonic forest.
To the band and producer Dave Fridmann’s credit, At War with the Mystics is impossible to digest in a single listen; it’s a true headphone album that demands attention and rewards the patient with unexpected delights. 2005 saw a lot of Lips nostalgia: Brad Beesley’s sterling retrospective The Fearless Freaks recounted the band’s seldom-boring two-decade existence and the coffee table photo book Waking Up with a Placebo Headwound unearthed a trove of photographic Lips ephemera. Not surprising then that At War with the Mystics finds the band striking out in a lot of familiar directions, but also quite a few new ones. It’s bracing, gargantuan rock that sounds like little else out there and will no doubt land on many year-end lists.