Saturday, March 1st, 2003
Wayne Coyne is a genius. Having now witnessed Zaireeka in all its eight-channel majesty, I have no doubts about it. A brief primer for those who don’t know what this is – in 1997, The Flaming Lips released a four-disc box set. The four discs were meant to be played simultaneously, on four separate stereo systems, to achieve full effect. I’ve had a CD-R copy of the album for a few years now (burned because Warner Bros deleted the album not long after release… for which I don’t really blame them – I’m amazed they acquiesed to release it in the first place. It has, however, been reissued and is available at sorta reasonable prices) but never got to hear more than three discs at once, and only for one song. I’ve gotten two discs going a few times, but mostly I’ve listened to them individually.
On their own, each disc is sort of like listening to a dub mix of John Cage-produced session of Led Zeppelin sitting in with a drunken London Philharmonic. Since crucial parts of each song are distributed amongst the four discs, you only get bits and pieces of the whole. There are often extended periods of silence punctuated with a drum break or squall of strings and keyboards. Vocals fade in and drop out, and are heard only faintly in the distance or right up front. Most impressive is that despite the disjointed nature of each track, the skeleton of a song is still there, and if you’re in the proper mindset, each individual disc is pretty listenable. For each track, there is usually one disc that gets the bulk of the song structure, so over the course of the disc you will get at least one or two songs that still sound like recognizable songs.
Taken all at once though… man. Firstly, Zaireeka eschews much of the classic pop song structure that anchors the preceding and subsequent Lips albums. These are primarily experiments in sound. But what sound! From this day forward, I hereby declare ‘Bonham-esque’ to be an obselete adjective and submit ‘Drozd-like’ as its heir to the rock-crit lexicon. Steve Drozd is a monster behind the kit, and 8 channels of Fridmann-ized drum tracks? Dear Lord. It’s a maelstrom of percussion, surrounding you like fat men at a buffet. The keyboards are simultaneously soaring and crushing. Vocals plaintive and ghost-like. Heavily processed strings lend majesty and terror. Words fail. I should note that the listening last night was ridiculously loud, and what I’m describing as over-the-top sonic onslaught may have actually been the PA speakers crying out for mercy.
And therein lies the real genius of Zaireeka. It is fully listener-participatory art. You can’t just put it on and listen, you have to be part of it. You need four people (or well-trained monkeys) at four CD players operating in synchronicity, and try as you might, you’ll never get the exact same timing twice. It will never be the same aural experience – each time it’ll be slightly or significantly different from the last. And this isn’t even taking into consideration stereo system latency, speaker placement, listener placement, phase cancellation, acoustical room reflections… It’s never the same listening experience twice. Never the same song. Of course, it requires more considerably more work and setup to experience it properly, but I personally think that’s good. It makes the music an event, something to be experienced, something to be considered. It keeps it from being disposable, and true art should never be disposable.
Cheers to the Flaming Lips. (There’s another listener impression to the Zaireeka experience here.)
Some comments on the actual night itself – the organizers were pretty amazed that someone they didn’t know (namely me) heard about it and came out. They expected (and got) mostly their friends and acquaintances, so it was like a big house party for them. Nice enough guys, I chatted with them for a bit seeing as how I was something of a novelty in the room (“See that guy? No one knows who he is! Isn’t that great?”) but mostly there was sitting around and waiting. There were three ‘acts’ for the evening, Zaireeka being the last. The first was a DJ who, for what he was getting out of the speakers, seemed to be way too busy behind the decks. All I heard as one song fading into another, with a very bare minimum of scratching, while he looked like he was trying to stop a nuclear meltdown back there. Maybe I was missing something. The second was an ambient electronic band who utterly put me to sleep, though that may have been the intent. They’d start a canned drum track, then just start randomly making noises on keyboards and computers. Didn’t really seem like there was a lot of forethought or arrangement that went into it, but then I was asleep for most of it.
And as a final note, this going out and doing stuff by myself is getting real old.
np – Mogwai / Young Team