The Flaming Lips: Christmas on MarsDecember 19, 2008
Astronauts with vaginas for faces, a baby’s head crushed like a watermelon, Fred Armisen singing “Silent Night”– the Flaming Lips’ maiden foray into DIY filmmaking, Christmas on Mars, features no lack of bizarro imagery for fans who’ve been patiently waiting the past seven years for its release. The film essentially encompasses everything Wayne Coyne has ever sung about– the future, outer space, stressed-out scientists, heroism, insanity, the inevitability of death, hope in the face of disaster, the perseverance of the human spirit, mankind’s miniscule standing in the universe at large, and, yes, Christmas. And as ridiculous as the idea of Coyne making a sci-fi film in his backyard may be, it was a logical step for a band that’s historically found its stage-show inspiration in the local hardware store. But compared to the orgiastic circus of balloons, confetti, and dancing mascots that has come to define the the Flaming Lips’ live set-up,Christmas on Mars is a starkly rendered, sometimes ponderous, rather bleak affair. Starring multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd as a Mars-station major trying to salvage Christmas celebrations on the red planet after a Santa-suited colleague’s suicide, and Coyne as the mute alien who helps him, the film plays like a 2001 that looks like it cost $2,001 to make.
Its accompanying score likewise marks a break from the Lips’ post-millennial recorded output, which, consistent with the band’s live evolution, has emphasized the band’s cute and quirky qualities while submerging the strange. And yet, even with the complete absence of the band’s signature devices– namely, Coyne’s creaky croon and Drozd’s earth-quaking drum beats– Christmas on Mars still feels very much like a Flaming Lips album, fusing synthetic orchestral elements, choral harmonies and electronic effects to create a soundtrack that, like the film, captures both what we imagine outer space to be (a wondrous expanse of psychedelic splendor) and what it really is: a cold, dark, desolate place that’s so vast, it’s suffocating. Not for nothing is the soundtrack book-ended by an eerily Lynchian ambient piece called “Once Beyond Hopelessness”.
Given that the film’s production began in 2001, it would follow that the score’s origins date back to that post-Soft Bulletin/pre-Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots era. In a sense, Christmas on Mars could be heard as a parallel-universe product of what the Flaming Lips could’ve turned into had they decided to further experiment with The Soft Bulletin‘s background orchestral textures instead of streamlining them intoYoshimi‘s compact electro-pop. With the two-part “The Distance Between Mars and the Earth”, the Disneyfied acid trip of “The Horrors of Isolation”, and wordless harmony haze of “In Excelsior Vaginalistic”, you can imagine what Bulletin standards like “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton” and “The Spark That Bled” would sound like without the actual songs on top of them.
But the score is also a reminder of a time when the Lips were more interested in provoking their audience than pleasing it: The power-drilled drones of “Your Spaceship Comes From Within” play like a one-minute distillation of the half-hour electronic-noise oscillation they tacked onto 1992’s Hit to Death in the Future Head, while the slow-motion tribal build of “Suicide and Extraordinary Mistakes” is accompanied by an ear-piercing, high-pitched frequency that harkens back to 1997’s four-CD mind-fuck Zaireeka.
As the soundtrack progresses, it actually acquires a logic and momentum that isn’t necessarily experienced watching the film, which tends to use this music in brief bursts– for example, “The Gleaming Armament of Marching Genitalia” is a swell of Wagnerian pomp that soundtracks the aforementioned baby-crushing. On record the track is made more effective by an aftermath come-down with “The Distress Signals of Celestial Objects”. In turn, the muted reverberations and droning crescendo of “Distress Singnals” sets the scene for “Space Bible With Volume Lumps”, which manifests the film’s claustrophobic tension with a ticking glitch beat, analog-synth loops and blaring trumpets.
In Christmas on Mars‘ closing credits, The Flaming Lips include a special thank you to the band’s fans for their support and patience with the film; but for long-time followers of the band, that patience is truly rewarded by the soundtrack album, which– following a series of tours that have more or less stuck to the same nightly script– reassert the Flaming Lips’ ability to surprise, experiment and freak us out. Tellingly, the Christmas on Mars DVD/CD package is housed in a regular CD jewel-case as opposed to the standard DVD long box– the implication being that Christmas on Mars is as much a film in service to a soundtrack as a soundtrack in service to a film.