Eleven years later, 'Zaireeka' is within reach

When the Flaming Lips released this psychedelic masterpiece in 1997, nobody had four portable CD players lying around. Now, thanks to notebooks, lots of people do.

In 1997, when the Flaming Lips released Zaireeka, I'd been following the antics of their leader Wayne Coyne pretty closely.

His Boombox Experiment, which involved 40 boomboxes and an equal number of nearly identical cassettes, was a great demonstration of how music is an actual physical presence in a room. As an audience member walked among the boomboxes, the sound changed. That's the power of acoustics, which is often ignored by gear freaks but is absolutely critical in everything from recording to live performance to setting up your home stereo correctly.

The Flaming Lips

Zaireeka--the word is a combination of "Zaire" (which represented a collapsing civilization to Coyne) and "eureka" (Greek for "I've found it")--was the Lips' attempt to bring this experience to a wider audience by releasing a single album on four stereo CDs, all meant to be heard at the same time.

Unfortunately, in 1997 I didn't have anything close to four CD players, and boomboxes had already ebbed in popularity to the point that nobody I knew had one. I wasn't going to go through the trouble of calling three friends and asking them to bring their full stereos over to my apartment--I don't think I would have had enough outlets for four amplifiers and CD players anyway--so I never bought it.

A lot of reviewers felt the same way, dismissing the album as an unreasonable gimmick. The Lips went on to bigger fame with more conventional records like 1999's still-fantastic The Soft Bulletin, but Zaireeka became harder and harder to find, and eventually I forgot about it.

Last year, it became available again on Amazon.com, and my wife bought it for me for a birthday present, knowing that I loved the band. A lot has happened in the intervening years--most notably, laptop computers with built-in CD players and speakers are so common that many households have more than one. In other words, Zaireeka is finally within reach for mere mortal consumers!

Last night, I took the plunge. CD No. 1 went into my main audio system--a Cambridge Audio CD player attached to an AMC amp and Acoustic Energy speakers, all circa 2000. On top of my massive old TV between the big stereo speakers, I put my three-year-old Dell XPS Gen 2 laptop with an Audigy 2 soundcard connected to a pair of cheap but serviceable Altec Lansings (still working perfectly after almost a decade). That was for CD No. 2.

CD No. 3 went into a Bose Wave system, which I set up on the far left side of the room. (I know, I know, but this was a gift and the weird fakey bass boost does wonders for connected MP3 players.) CD No. 4 went into my MacBook Pro on the far right of the room. Unfortunately, I don't have another pair of speakers, so I had to use the tiny built-in notebook speakers.

The Cambridge, Bose, and MacBook all have remote controls, so I stood in front of the Dell, hit play in iTunes, waited until the program actually responded and started playing, then hit the other three remotes at approximately the same time. At the beginning of each track, a voice announces "Track 1," then each CD says its name--"CD 1," "CD 2," and so on. It took me a half dozen false starts before I got them all to say "Track 1" at approximately the same time, and CD number 4 was a little bit late...but it didn't matter! Zaireeka is fault-tolerant!

In fact, Coyne noted in his tests that it's almost impossible to get four CD players to spin at exactly the same rate, and consequently planned the album to sound great without all four CDs having to be perfectly synced. That is, instead of having a lot of precision parts that they tried to coordinate between the four CDs simultaneously, there are lots of long notes, sequences in which one or two of the CDs is playing silence or nonrhythmic sound effects while the other two play various slow rhythms and melodies, and parts that actually sound best with a slight echo. Hearing CD No. 4 duplicate a vocal sequence (softly, to the right, and a bit distorted from the MacBook speaker) a split second after CD No. 1 wasn't a problem--it sounded no weirder than Jimmy Page's application of echo to Robert Plant's vocal tracks on a bunch of Zeppelin songs.

Occasionally, the band did repeat a fairly complicated sequence among CDs, but the notes were usually played fairly slowly, in regular rhythm (quarter or eighth notes) and in a pattern of harmonic intervals that went together--similar to the way a lot of guitarists first figure out how to sound OK with a delay pedal. A repeated theme at the end of Track 2, "Riding to Work in the Year 2025 (Your Invisible Now)," (sic) stood out in this way. All in all, the compositions were beautiful and haunting and more than a little unnerving--a lot like The Soft Bulletin without the happy parts.

The experience gave me a new appreciation for 5.1 surround sound--I listened to a regular stereo CD when I was done, and missed the lack of depth. But I've heard plenty of 5.1 mixes, and this isn't the same. Again, the slight differences in timing actually make you note the shape of the room, how the sound bounces off walls and windows and curtains. Plus, the experience is going to be different every time--there's some of the spontaneity and magic of a live performance in it.

If you've got the equipment--and I bet many CNET readers do--to play this album in its intended state, and you like the Flaming Lips or psychedelic rock in general, this is an absolutely worthwhile way to spend $20 and an hour.

 

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