When the Flaming Lips announced that they would be releasing their thirteenth album, “The Terror,” on April 1, I was expecting an April Fools joke. The holiday is perfect for these merry pranksters, who are now in their fourth decade of existence. 

By “existence,” I mean releasing songs on a flash drive in a bubblegum-flavored gummy fetus, recording a 24-hour-long single and selling it inside real human skulls; producing Steve from “Blue’s Clues” debut album (Pitchfork gave it a 7.8 rating), and of course, collaborating with Ke$ha on the forthcoming effort Lip$ha.

Perhaps, then, you can excuse my skepticism. Amidst all these antics, after all, when could the Lips find the time to record an album? Their last proper album, "Embryonic," was released in 2009, though the band has been suffering from no dearth of headlines. To wit: in 2010, they recreated the classic Pink Floyd album, "Dark Side of the Moon," to give us all another option when watching “The Wizard of Oz,” and last year, brought Ke$ha, Bon Iver, and Yoko Ono all on the same album together. They’ve just been too busy, surely, and the April 1 release date was a sure sign of more antics.

But then I went to South by Southwest and saw the Flaming Lips perform the contents of this new album in front of 10,000 people. When lead singer Wayne Coyne said that he wanted the world to see something radical at SXSW, he wasn’t playing an April Fools joke.

In addition to unveiling an hour’s worth of previously unheard material, the Lips also debuted a revamped live show. Gone were the banners, streamers, and confetti; the oversized hands, blow-up dolls, and vagina imagery; and, most significantly, Wayne crowdsurfing the audience in a hamster ball. In their place were stage props straight out of “Prometheus,” a synthesizer posing as an alien baby that Wayne purported to be adopting, Sarah Barthel from Phantogram getting her hair pulled onstage, and a naked woman crowdsurfing the audience in a hamster ball. 

The new stage show made for a much less visually stimulating set—nearly bare bones, by the Flips’ standard.

The upshot was that the band really wanted the audience to listen to this music. A show with fewer distractions and no chance for a sing-along (at least until the encore) is a testament to the uncompromising nature of the Flaming Lips as they continue their renaissance. If this album’s any indication, the future is bleak.

“The Terror” is, in fact, terrifying. And not in the oh-no-pink-robots-are-about-to-eat-me kind of way: there’s no redemptive “Do You Realize??” here, just 55 minutes of unremitting despair. Each track is a heavily produced psychedelic trip, though without the orchestral bombast that characterized “Embryonic.” “Turning Violent” simmers malevolently for two minutes before it does indeed turn violent, exploding in a furor of electronic anger, while “Always There, In Our Hearts” locks into a freakish groove of distorted guitars and snare drums before overcoming itself in a swelling wave of reverb that concludes the album.

Coyne defines “The Terror” as life that continues without love, without opportunity for a mercy killing. The album starts with potentially hopeful “Look...The Sun Is Rising” before the Flips’ make their message clear: the sun will rise after you break up with your girlfriend, after your only child dies from cancer, and after a nuclear holocaust wipes out the human race. In the next song, Coyne sings “The sun shines now/But we’re so alone” like a survivor in a post-apocalyptic dystopia.

“The Terror” takes the Flaming Lips’ eternal question, “Do you realize we’re floating in space?” and transforms it from a bright-eyed celebration of mortality to a despairing cognizance of lack of control. 

“Always there, in our hearts,” Coyne warns, is the “fear of violence and death” that we cannot escape. “Always there, in our hearts,” he warns, “there’s something good that we can’t control” and spirals into chaos. 

Sometimes, it’s all too much to handle. It’s the last word Coyne utters on the band’s darkest album yet: “overwhelming."