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Future Head Hits

The Flaming Lips, at Artpark next week, eyeball 30 years freakier than ever

Oklahoma City art rock avatars the Flaming Lips have sculpted an aura that would almost have you believe that they are these weird, psychedelic wizards from space that have somehow always existed. Still, it’s hard to believe that in just a couple years Wayne Coyne and collective will celebrate their 30th anniversary as a band.

Turning on The Wizards

5 essentials from the Flaming Lips

In a Priest Driven Ambulance 1990

The beginning of a brief tenure with Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue on guitar, this album laid the groundwork for where the Lips’ stylistic twists and turns for the following two decades. Wiggy guitar noise, feedbacking garagey explosions, and maddening psych exploration rule as Wayne Coyne’s acid-damaged post-punk dementia cascade over.

Transmissions from the Satellite Heart 1993

A wild and woolly record of distorted guitar abandon and unabashed pop joy that was released at the height of 1990s alt.rock mania, it yielded the semi-hit “She Don’t Use Jelly,” which not only found the Flaming Lips feted at radio and MTV but also—almost impossibly—on Beverly Hills 90210. The YouTube click is worth a look, not only to see the band play 90210’s Peach Pit but also to hear thoroughly unhip Steve (Ian Ziering) Sanders quip his distaste for “alternative” but also his new love for the Lips.

Zaireeka 1997

On a fateful day, a young Wayne Coyne wandered through a parking lot at a concert hearing the strains of different songs pouring from the car radios of tailgating fans. The impetus for Zaireeka was born! Stephen Drozd’s first with the band, this album of four discs meant to be played simultaneously was a first and ushered in the era of the Flaming Lips as artists unafraid to challenge not only the music we listen to but the very process of how to listen to it.

The Soft Bulletin 1999

Somewhere between the Who’s Tommy and Radiohead’s OK Computer, this qualified masterpiece pitches orchestral pop while etching in every kitchen sink inch of the Flaming Lips’ previous incarnations of messed-up psychedelia, bent post-rock, punk ethos, and offbeat journeying that ultimately put the band at the forefront of modern rock majesty.

At War With the Mystics 2006

While the notion of following up commercial and critical hits Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots was daunting, this was a big win with an almost unfathomable fusion of offbeat keyboard experimentation, proggy riff rock, hovering-in-the-clouds psychedelia and unashamed dance-floor wiggle. Credit Drozd’s sheer musicianship, Ivins’ ears, Coyne’s surreal spontaneity and Fridmann’s uncanny ability to tie it all together.

The Flaming Lips finally return to region for a long overdue appearance on Thursday, July 22, at Lewiston’s Artpark, but it’s far from the band’s first time in Western New York.

It’s essential—at the very least for local pride—to mention here that the Lips have a strong and deep local connection, forged as far back as 1990. It was then that the band recorded In a Priest Driven Ambulance with Mercury Rev bassist Dave Fridmann in Fredonia.

The relationship has continued for 20 years and the rise of the Lips has gone hand in hand with that of celebrated producer Fridmann. His work with the band has won him Grammys and his Tar Box Road studio in Cassadega has been ground zero for almost everything the band has recorded since.

The Flaming Lips core of founders—Wayne Coyne, Michael Ivins, long-standing member Steven Drozd, and tenured percussionist Kliph Scurlock—has been on a roll lately. The last 24 months have proven some of the busiest of the band’s career.

Their latest proper studio album, 2009’s Embryonic (Warner Brothers), is the band’s most challenging—read: least commercial—record at least since the four-disc freakout Zaireeka. Something of a left turn from the band’s string of experimental orch-pop experimentations, the double LP Embryonic is a lysergic, histrionic journey deep into themes of astrology, birth, and death, with a sonic quilt-work that eschews any remnants of tradition that the band hadn’t shaken off in three decades, trading it for a head trip of electronic passages, bloodshot blue-eyed soul, spacey free jazz with a heavy leaning toward krautrock, and prog sensibilities that are unrelentingly fresh and engaging.

Within months of the release of Embryonic, the Lips—never an outfit to rest—unleashed a reset of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon with help from Henry Rollins, Peaches, and Stardeath and White Dwarf. The twisted redo of this classic rock sacred cow was a surprise on a couple levels. For one, it was more of a shock that the band would pick this instead of the Syd Barrett-era Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Additionally, while on some levels it sounds like a radical reworking of Floyd, it is astonishingly true to the original in spirit, with moments (like the version of “Us and Them”) lifted in a very straight manner.

Finally, there’s the regular schedule of live gigs—like this week’s Artpark show—where the Flaming Lips have turned their show into an all-out, must-see live music experience. Take the band’s virtuosic live performance bolstered with everything from gigantic screens to bunny suits, to bleeding head wounds and Coyne being passed through the crowd in a see-through bubble, and you start to understand: The Flaming Lips live are not to be missed.

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