The Flaming Lips' approach to their latest album was inspired, so their press release claims, by covering Black Sabbath's "War Pigs", though try as you might, you'll be hard pushed to find any direct sonic similarities between the Sabs' doom-metal anthem and the Lips' euphoric psychedelia.
Take the forthcoming single "The Yeah Yeah Song", which opens At War with the Mystics with a full-blown barrage of ambitious Wilsonian harmonies and an unusual tone of restraint. "It's a very dangerous thing to do exactly what you want," suggests Wayne Coyne, whom one suspects has spent much of his life doing just that, "because you cannot know yourself, or what you'd really do with all your power." It's a far cry from the apocalyptic abyss confronted by Ozzy and Co - although subsequent songs such as the suicide-bomber critique "Free Radicals" and the anti-establishment call-to-arms "The W.A.N.D." do offer comparable anti-war messages, albeit couched in more thoughtful terms.
As the album title suggests, Coyne and fellow Lips, Steven Drozd and Michael Ivins, have chosen to take a broader view of current global conflict, rejecting the religious illogic at its root. For a supposedly dedicated acidhead, Coyne has little time here for the metaphysical, espousing surprisingly sensible, humanist attitudes about life, death, creation and the spiritual realm. "Off in the future maybe there ain't no heaven," he muses in "Vein of Stars", "it's just you and me, and maybe it's just as well; 'cause if there ain't no heaven, maybe there ain't no hell."
Likewise, the vastness of the universe inspires not mythical speculation but purely scientific awe in "It Overtakes Me", as Coyne wonders, "I am just so small - do I stand a chance?", his ruminations rendered all the more sincere by the innocent, questing quality of his reedy, Neil Young-ian vocals against the swirling, multi-layered arrangement. Here, and on such similarly grandiose pieces as "My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion" and "The W.A.N.D.", the band manages to be anthemic without becoming bombastic.
The band and producer Dave Fridmann create an engrossing sonic montage in which chunks of hardcore electronica mingle with lush, layered harmonies, twitchy guitars, big beat drums and hippyish flute and Mellotron. As with 2002's Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, the complexity of the arrangements is matched by the profundity of the subject matter - so successfully that one wonders why so few other bands attempt to smuggle philosophical themes into pop. I suppose they have to think of them first.
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