The Flaming Lips
Christmas on Mars
Warner Bros.

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

3.5 out of 5 stars

The Flaming Lips’s latest release is a bit bewildering. It doesn’t conform to the band’s usual brand of psychedelic pop, or even to its older mold of acid-tinged indie rock. Christmas on Mars is the soundtrack to the band’s own, newly-released independent film of the same name. The band impressively brings the sound of a blockbuster Hollywood score to this small-screen picture.

Avoiding traditional song structures and blunt melodic themes, The Flaming Lips focus on weaving narrative threads rather than crafting singular cuts. Almost forgoing percussion and guitars entirely, the sparse compositions build slowly and erupt into concentrated moments of orchestral synth majesty. Cultivating an alien tundra of sound, the band delivers on the title’s promise, though it leans more toward the Mars side.

Christmas on Mars tells the story of a crumbling human civilization on the newly colonized Mars and one man’s quest to bring joy to its citizens on Christmas day. While the premise might sound corny, the musical expression of the idea rings true. Amid a harsh and barren landscape, hope springs forth in the most unexpected places.

In the first few minutes, sheaths of wistful tremolo pulses on “Once Beyond Hopelessness” detail the desolation of Mars; and “The Horrors Of Isolation: The Celestial Dissolve, Triumphant Hallucination, Light Being Absorbed” brings the Christmas vibe to the fore with its flurries of scale-descending twinkles and booming choral section.

“Your Spaceship Comes from Within” marks a troubled midpoint with the sounds of an EKG and a respirator. The track seems to introduce a Martian catalyst to the story while highlighting a moment of crisis or death. “Spaceship” bleeds into “Suicide and Extraordinary Mistakes,” which suggests a severe turn of events through its regal horns, emphatic bell tolls and dramatic timpani à la “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

At the close of Christmas on Mars’s second act, “The Secret Of Immortality: This Strange Feeling, This Impossible World” sculpts post-Elfman topographies of wonder. Floating along at a dreamy three-quarter-rhythm, the alien oohs and ahhs mesh into the synthesized strings. This moment of peace is crushed by the unfortunately-titled “The Gleaming Armament Of Marching Genitalia,” which clashes anguished wails against a grand symphonic war song.

“Space Bible With Volume Lumps” ditches the melodramatic tone of the rest of the album as it recalls older Flaming Lips instrumentals. Ripping bass stabs and a lush brass section, backed by a ticking percussion, provide the full depth of texture and persistence of rhythm expected from any rock song. Its energy and playfulness bring a sense of resolution to the tale.

Though clocking in at a mere 32 minutes, Christmas on Mars successfully jams a full musical narrative onto one disc. The only problem is that The Flaming Lips easily could have taken things much further. Why not make an hour-long ambient LP that truly pushes those qualities of vastness, alienation and wonder to their limits? While missing that opportunity, the Lips still come through with a fresh, albeit condensed, listening experience.

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