The Flaming Lips – ‘Zaireeka’ – Round 5: Rob’s Choice

When Tom chose ‘albums you’ve never listened to before’ as this week’s theme, there was only one choice for me. This is the album that Devon Record Club was made for.

I bought ‘Zaireeka’ when it came out in 1997. It’s taken 14 years for me to get enough like-minded individuals together to actually play it. ‘Zaireeka’, you see, is not a normal album.

You know all this already, and if you don’t i’m not going to go into great detail. If you’re really interested you should buy Mark Richardson’s excellent book on the subject. Mark was good enough to tweet into our little listening party which really helped to create the sense of event which ‘Zaireeka’ was conceived to deliver.

The album comes on 4 cds, all of which must be played at the same time. That’s difficult, maybe impossible, to achieve with fewer that 3 people, which immediately breaks out of the album as solitary experience. You have to have friends round to listen with you or else you simply can’t listen. Even tougher, you have to stop the thing and restart after each track. As Nick enjoyed explaining to us, and as Mark pointed out from across the Atlantic, CD players spin at 5000rpm, so they are all working at very slightly different speeds. The difference is undetectable when listening to one song on one player, but leave four blaring at the same time and they’ll surely drift apart over the course of a full album, leaving you with total cacophony by the time the final track rolls around.

So, not only did I have to bring the CD, I also had to bring 3 CD players to make playback possible. Cue ten minutes of frantic wiring, plugging, positioning and generally scurrying around like fat kids in a sweet shop and we were ready to go.

I expected to be disappointed, or at least not to be surprised. I guess I expected to hear a bunch of slightly woozy, off-kilter Flaming Lips songs. That would have been pretty good for me. We got so much more.

It’s not an easy experience to describe, and again, that speaks to what a wonderful success the whole enterprise is. You just have to be there. Far from just a crazy way to present the album the Lips wrote between ‘Clouds Taste Metallic’ and ‘The Soft Bulletin’, ‘Zaireeka’ is the real deal: something completely other. Sonically, conceptually and intellectually on a totally different plane from anything i’ve been amidst before or since.

The sound rises and falls, grows and dies, whirls around you. It’s tough to imagine what it’s like to be in the middle of it and now i’m out of it, it’s tough to recall. So much more intense and physically affecting than I could have anticipated, I was taken totally by surprise by the sheer intensity of it. At times the volume of sound is quite shaking and the running around we found ourselves doing, trying and usually failing to identify which speakers were threatening to bring the walls crashing in so we could turn them down, just raised the sense of performance.

The only real comparison I can make it with being in the middle of a classical concert performance, with sounds coming from all around you in overwhelming quantity. It’s unlike anything you’ll have heard before, and totally amazing and joyously surprising for that very reason.

In the middle are what sounded like pretty decent, if out there, Flaming Lips songs. They struggled to get the recording sessions going until they realised that they had to record for the 4 channel format rather than just disassemble existing songs to fit. And boy did they open up a can of sonic whup-ass. Never knowingly under-cooked they shot for the moon here and ended up somewhere west of Jupiter.

That’s enough hyperbole from me. I could go on and on. I won’t. Find someone who has the album and organise to play it with them. They’ll thank you and you’ll thank me.

Other notes:

Marge, our dog, was with us. I’ve never seen her react to music before. At times she sat in the middle of the set up looking urgently from speaker to speaker following the currents around the room. And that was before the dogs starting barking…

Think about what an achievement it is to conceive of a record that can only work as a live performance, which will be different every time you hear it and which demands you get together with other people just to begin to play it. Then imagine that the band who conceived it went ahead and made it 100 times better than it needed to be.

We agreed, as we talked, that The Flaming Lips are a much better live experience (perhaps the best) than they are an album band. ‘Zaireeka’ destroys that distinction. Hail them, laud them, carry them shoulder high.

Nick listened: I had announced, in Rob’s car on the way to Tom’s house, my intention to play ‘Zaireeka’ next time I hosted Devon Record Club, as I have a lot of stereos and had just read Mark Richardson’s book, which he sent me a copy of because he liked the sound of our little club, and it seemed like the perfect record for an arrangement like ours. Rob kept magnificently schtum about what was in his bag.

I was delighted that Rob had brought it though, despite him scuppering my plans, because ‘Zaireeka’ is a remarkable thing. Unlike Rob or Tom I’ve actually heard it before; a couple of times at university, when my housemates and I pointed each bedroom-stereo towards the landing, and once at home, with Emma, a similar array of motley sound-emitting-devices scattered about my parents’ home and us brandishing two remote controls each… I’ve also heard a stereo mixdown of it a couple of times, burnt to CD and given to me by a friend who is a ravenous Flaming Lips fan (the mixdown completely misses the point). So I knew what to expect, even though you can’t expect anythign with this record.

I’ve already written some of my thoughts on our listen to ‘Zaireeka’ as part of last week’s #musicdiaryproject, so I wont go into it too much more here, except to say that it really is an extraordinary, overwhelming, physical experience. I think part of my fascination with fidelity is down to trying to achieve that sense of being consumed by music that ‘Zaireeka’ gives you, that tidal wave of sound that engulfs you and your collaborators in listening from all sides. As Rob suggested, I’m not bothered by The Flaming Lips on record, as much as I’ve been smashed into emotional pieces by them live, but ‘Zaireeka’, though one can only ever hear it properly once in a blue moon, is really something else.

Tom Listened: I became aware of Zaireeka when it was released but as I recall, the reviews at the time focused mainly on the gimmick rather than the effect…although I may be wrong. Whatever, as someone who never really got The Flaming Lips on record, I had always considered Zaireeka as something I could quite happily do without. It turns out I was right to think this in as much as I can now never listen to any of my other albums and feel fully satisfied! Listening to Zaireeka is the aural equivalent of opening Pandora’s box and for the first time in a long time I was blown away by a musical experience. It had nothing to do with the songs. On flat, tinny, single CD format I am not sure I would be bothered to listen again – I just don’t connect with Wayne Coyne’s whimsical flotsam. It was all to do with the sound, which is just phenomenal and, at times, I truly felt as though I could see the eruptions of noise as they ejaculated a torrent of sound from nowhere in much the same way as a lava lake might operate.

To sum up, it seems appropriate to draw a comparison between Zaireeka and heroin – the pleasure it brings may be intense but  may make you feel that all that came before is a pale imitation.

For the record, I have never taken heroin.

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