Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Flaming Lips - 7 Skies H3 (The 24 Hour Song) - A review by someone who has actually listened to the entire track

Before I say anything else I'd like to make it clear that I'm not exactly what you'd call a fan of The Flaming Lips. I have a few albums and I think there are some fantastic songs on some ('Jesus Shooting Heroin' and 'Love Yr Brain' spring to mind) but it's rare I'd sit down and listen to a whole album. (Except for their cover of 'Dark Side Of The Moon' and the one time my friend and I got together with 4 ipods and 4 sets of speakers and listened to 'Zaireeka' the way it was intended to be listened to. It didn't quite work practically speaking but that's by the by.)

I think it's fair to say I like the idea of The Flaming Lips more than the actuality of what they do. They've been criticised for being a band who have 'novelty' ideas - who have an idea to do something off the wall and just go and do it regardless of considerations of practicality, taste, convention etc. For me that's not a criticism, that's how it should be. So whether it's The Flaming Lips doing a 24 hour long song or Boredoms getting 77 drummers to play at 7 minutes past 7 on the 7th day of the seventh month 2007 I think that in this day of instantly downloadable, disposable tracks bands who try to do something a little bit different should be applauded. Even if it doesn't quite work.

Just like 'I Found A Star On The Ground' (the 6 hour song) doesn't. That track, though really great in places, took a huge effort to get through and I can safely say it's unlikely I'll ever listen to the whole thing again (maybe someday I'll edit it down to half an hour). The problem there was it felt like one thing stretched out for 6 hours. 7 Skies H3, despite being 4 times as long, doesn't suffer from that problem (mostly).

The 24 hours of the track can be broken down into a number of different sections which segue into each other. To save me repeating it each time I'll say now that each section is far too long. In some cases a section might just be too long, in other cases a section might be just really, really stupidly long (like the 7 hour section, but I'll get to that).

This is a song about death. Wayne Coyne has said “It’s about — I’m not at liberty to say actually who it’s about — but it’s about a guy whose girlfriend has committed suicide. [It’s a] very sad, long, sound poem, about this process that this guy is going through in mourning and in remembering and in trying to fall out of love with this person he was in love with.”

Perhaps, in the same way the process of grieving doesn't simply stop or change when one gets a bit sick of it so too the sections of this piece do not simply stop or change when you've had enough. Or maybe they had to flesh some sections out to fill the 24 hours...

Anyway. There are plenty of melodies, motifs and sounds that recur across the whole track but for the sake of making a review of a 24 hour track a bit more manageable I've divided it up into 11 sections. Anyone who has listened to the whole thing might well disagree with my divisions. Fair enough.

Section 1
At a modest 35 odd minutes this is a fairly gentle opener. The piece starts with a 70's sounding slow ballady Pink Floyd circa 'Wish You Were Here' era song. The lyrics are fairly stark - the narrator can't come to terms with the death of the subject and is tormented by thoughts of their body being devoured by the worms and their once moist lips now dry and rotting away.

This is a good enough track but after 15 minutes or so it does drag a bit. And here's a problem that is present throughout: a lot of these pieces are based upon cycles that have a natural progression and resolve and then begin again with a build or a variation of some sort. As such there are just too many opportunities to think a section has ended only to have it begin again. And again. And again. And again. This first song is not at all bad and at 5 minutes would be a perfectly acceptable album track, but by the time it finished I never wanted to hear it again.

Section 2
This is the experimental electronic far out bit. This is made up predominantly of choppy repetitive melodic rhythmic noise with a selection of slow melodies weaving their way underneath and occasional electronic noise that sounds like the cackling of crows. Drums gradually build and towards the end a high, sweet keyboard melody and the sound of wind (one of many references to 'Wish You Were Here') gradually join the fray. I like this section but at well over an hour it does wear one out. 10 minutes would be more than enough.

Section 3
The wind continues softly blowing and we spend 38 minutes in the company of some very gentle, echoey synths as they rise and fall. This is quite beautiful. In another context this could sit alongside some of Brian Eno's more ambient stuff - the likes of 'Neroli' for example. If you ever want to make a playlist of soft ambient sounds to play as you do something cerebral this would fit right in.

Section 4
This would most certainly not however. This is the first of the two noisy, upbeat chaotic sections. It begins with what sound like timps (but might just be big toms) being pummelled with the occasional crash of cymbal and painful high pitched electronic noise assaulting each ear in turn. A dirty keyboard sound joins from somewhere underneath and a good way through vocals that sound like they've been inspired by 'Carmina Burana' belt out some satanic hymn as the piece just keeps building and building and building... it's really exhausting to be honest.

There's no let up for well over two and a half hours until all of a sudden everything just stops without warning and we have some respite while the bass keeps us anchored as a number of other sounds pop and explode quietly around the speakers. Even this builds into a painful cacophony until it gives way to some refreshing rain and thunder sounds and the previous track resumes. This time it's much calmer with the timps replaced by bongos. The manic noises are gone too and a gentle guitar takes their place. The vocal refrain from the start resumes after some time and the final hour of this almost 4 hour section is much easier on the ear.

Section 5
The problem with streaming a 24 hour track is that people will inevitable end up hearing the same bits each time they log on. At the end of my work day when I was able to listen to the stream it was always this, the longest section by far.

At just over 7 hours you'd think this might be the most difficult to get through but I found it fairly easy going. It consists of a number of cycles that build and change and alter. Each section is fairly loose and quite lengthy in itself so there's a lot of room for a number of odd sounds. Each cycle seems to culminate in a cacophony of discordant noise that is held for an almost painful length of time before finally giving way to a single guitar chord. There are a some more rhythmic variations that break up the monotony of this piece a touch. One of them is a fairly mid tempo krautrocky, psychedelic section that is pleasant enough here, and if this was the last we heard it I'd speak of it with fondness. But this is not the last we'll hear of it by a long stretch (literally).

Section 6
The shortest section. A slow steady rhythm section with a few choice keyboard sounds back up Wayne Coyne's vocal stylings. At under 24 minutes I realise saying this is too long might seem a touch ridiculous given the context, but really this should be a nice bridge in a song - a minute or two, not a side of a normal record.

Section 7
Nice enough for a few minutes. Boring as fuck for over an hour. It sounds like a small section from that pointless bit in King Crimson's 'Moonchild' repeated over and over again. I kept willing the drums from the start of the song 'In The Court Of The Crimson King' to kick in, but they never did.

Section 8
It was during this section I lost the will to live. This 3 and a half hours of plodding drony krautrock (that we heard earlier during the 7 hour section) just sapped my strength and had I not been over halfway through the entire piece I may well have knocked it on the head at this point. Pleasant for 10 minutes, dull as fuck after that. The backwards bit in the middle was a welcome variation but not nearly enough to salvage it.

Section 9
This bit actually made me really angry. Over 2 hours of the same weedy ambient noodling punctuated by the kind of incessant farting noises that would make the Annoying Orange look like a rank amateur. Despite how bored I became with other, earlier sections this was the only section where I really considered fast forwarding. I didn't though, just so I could say I didn't. Whoop-de-fucking-doo.

Section 10
Brilliant. By far and away the best, most exhilarating, exciting, interesting and engaging section in the entire piece. Not a million miles from the sound of Section 4. We have big drums, dirty synths, grimy bass and an array of ever changing sonic effects. It's not unlike Boredoms' Super Roots 3 - the 30 minute straight up, heads down thrash 'song'. An hour and a half is still a bit much of course but each time I started to get a bit bored with this as if by magic some new sound would appear to liven up the proceedings. Wait for the harp, it's great when you first hear it (though it won't be now that I've told you about it).

Section 11
The bulk of this final piece is made up of what is best described as the first few minutes of Pink Floyd's 'Wish You Were Here' (the noodly guitar/synth section before the track starts properly) stretched out over the course of about an hour and three quarters. Pleasant enough and tolerable (probably because I knew I was in the home straight) but I'd never listen to a whole album of just that. It played over the chord sequence of the first song so I suspected we might be treated to reprise of that and sure enough, after a pretty cool ghostly sounding 20 odd minutes (not unlike Section 3) the singing resumed, joined then by the original synth part and we hear the original song, arranged differently, playing us out for the last 8 and a half minutes.

After which you may feel something like this:

I've been working on an edited version that I'll post when complete. I've got it down to slightly over 5 hours but I'm going to go back and trim it some more. I'd like to get it to under 4 hours. I thinks that's a reasonable goal. Wish me luck.