Flying Lotus: Cosmogramma
Warp Records

So much ink has been spilled on Flying Lotus in recent days, it's hardly necessary for it to be regurgitated at length here. Suffice it to say, anyone even peripherally associated with electronic music will be aware that Steven Ellison, cousin to jazz sax player Ravi Coltrane and grand-nephew to pianist-harpist Alice Coltrane, has followed the 2008 full-length Warp debut, Los Angeles, with his self-described “space opera” Cosmogramma, a dazzling kaleidoscope where every track veritably bursts with ideas and sounds (cosmography, incidentally, involves the study of the visible universe). In fact, where a given track begins and ends is often challenged when an already short piece morphs into a seemingly new song before its running time's done, making the album feel even more like a non-stop, forty-six-minute travelogue that touches down innumerable times in multiple locales.

So how does Cosmogramma sound? The spirit of J Dilla wafts through loping joints like “Zodiac Shit,” a tripped-out take on hip-hop one might label fractured, even cubistic, but the album's scope can't be contained by a single genre. Elements of jazz (one hears traces of Sun Ra and ‘70s fusion), hip-hop, arcade-electro, funk, and dubstep all surface, albeit in transmogrified form, with all of it blended into a surrealistic stew. The album's character can be gleaned from the first ten seconds alone, when “Clock Catcher” explodes in a fireball of synth bleeps and harp strums. Immediately thereafter, “Pickled!” finds Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner's bass channeling Jaco Pastorius in a bravura display of rapid-fire fretless runs. In the two-and-a-half minutes of “Computer Face//Pure Being,” so many sounds spill over each other—creamy banks, squiggly synths, thumping sub-bass, et al.—the listener reels, dizzied and intoxicated by the wealth of sound. As merely one example of the the material's audacity, “Table Tennis” does, in fact, use the sounds of ping-pong as percussive accompaniment to the serenading voice of Laura Darlington. One of the album's obvious go-to tracks is the collab with Thom Yorke, “…And The World Laughs With You,” but it surprises most for departing from the album's overall tone. Though instrumentally it's still over-loaded and busy, it's also relatively mellow, and Yorke's is vocal is woven so delicately into the mix it becomes just one more part of the mutating whole.

Eight cuts in, the album moves into a neo-jazz zone when “Arkestry” (a nod to Sun Ra's Arkestra) brings cousin Ravi Coltrane on tenor sax aboard. In fact, with its jazz kit drumming, harp strums, and sax blowing, it might be the album tune that best distills the FlyLo aesthetic: an unbounded music intent on transcending categories. With roots in jazz-fusion, the sweetly melodic “Mmmhmm” could pass for a collab between Ellison and the late Josef Zawinul. After distorted vocals, electric piano, and propulsive jazz-inflected swing swim in a blurry mix during “Satelllliiiiiteee,” the album's jazz circle closes when Ravi's feathery bluster re-appears alongside Richard Eigner's drums and Raff's harp in “German Haircut.” Her harp playing here and during “Intro//A Cosmic Drama” can't help but call to mind the close relationship Ellison enjoyed with his late great-aunt. Her spirit, embodied by Raff's playing, is a presence throughout the album, with the harp sometimes faintly occupying the background and sometimes front and center.

There's been so much hype attending the release that one can't help but feel like Ellison's being pitched as a saviour of sorts—a move that could also be seen as not only premature but potentially harmful to his development. As his own career progresses, Ellison might do well to note the trajectory of fellow Warp artist Prefuse 73, who seemingly could do no wrong when One Word Extinguisher catapulted Scott Herren to the top of the critics' lists. That album, like Cosmogramma, overflows with ideas, and the release plays like an aural brain scan of Herren's fecund imagination. But his star's brightness began to dim as subsequent releases appeared, some disappointing (Surrounded By Silence) and others hinting at a return to form (Everything She Touched Turned Ampexian). If Ellison's in it for the long haul, he'll need to be careful he doesn't paint himself into a corner or get too wound up in the hype (the best thing he could do is ignore ridiculous hyperbole of the kind Mary Anne Hobbs supposedly passed on to The Fader: “Flying Lotus, for me, is like the Hendrix of his generation”). In short, it'll be interesting to hear how he follows up what, for now at least, sounds fairly amazing.

July 2010