Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Infinite Space

Flying Lotus - Cosmogramma (Warp)

It's very difficult to make a convincing written case for just how amazing the disjointed, disorientating, genre-spanning work of Steve Ellison is. Every rule that governs the operation of the music business, both in creative and marketing terms, Ellison breaks. His output as Flying Lotus has been lazily classified as 'instrumental hip hop' in the past, or, perhaps even more misleadingly, bracketed with the UK dubstep movement. Whilst some of the Flying Lotus work might share with the likes of Burial a compelling and murky atmosphere, Ellison's scope is considerably wider. On 'Cosmogramma', he seems to have inherited some of his Aunt Alice Coltrane's spiritual concerns. This is a work as indebted to the revolutionary jazz sound as it is to hip hop and electronica.

Initial promotional copies of 'Cosmogramma' were sent out as one long track, although the finished product is divided into seventeen largely brief segments. Part of FlyLo's approach so far has been, much like the work of Prefuse 73, a scattershot approach that makes rapid switches between styles and never allows ideas to outstay their welcome. This might be a major problem, were it not for the coherence and power of the overall vision and architecture.

To my ears, 'Cosmogramma' might helpfully be divided into three distinct movements. The short opening section, comprising 'Clock Catcher', 'Pickled!' and 'Nose Art' is the most electronic and funky section, mixing sinister undertones and playful humour. The opening gurgles and bleeps of 'Clock Catcher' offer the listener a false sense of security - it feels like we're in fairly predictable Warp territory. Similarly, the bass extravaganza of 'Pickled!' could have come from a Squarepusher record.

As it's title suggests, 'Intro/A Cosmic Drama' takes us somewhere else entirely. The longer, central section of this album is beautifully orchestrated and ferociously intense. Even so, this allows for FlyLo to veer from the delightful analogue electro of 'Computer Face/Pure Being' to the improvised drum solo that initiates 'Arkestry'. Again, the title is a giveaway - the sonic and spiritual outlook of Sun Ra is clearly a major influence. All the disparate strands are held together through the serene harp playing of Rebekah Raff.

Within this highly imaginative sound collage are some of FlyLo's most transparently commercial offerings to date. In his hands, however, they sound wondrous. The familiar murmurings of Thom Yorke make '..And The World Laughs With You...' sound eerie and mysterious. The wonderfully titled 'Do The Astral Plane' is a further reminder of Ellison's superb sense of humour. It's an irresistible slice of cosmic disco. 'Mmm..Hmmm', which features Thundercat, is possibly the most straightforwardly melodic thing Ellison has produced to date, but it also has its own unique slinky, cerebral and atmospheric charm.

Some critics have found fault in the final stretch of 'Cosmogramma', from 'Satellliiiite' onwards. It certainly becomes more impressionistic, hazy and distant at this point. To me, it is suggestive of the numinous - something unfathomable beyond the known limits of the universe. This is Ellison at his most expansive and abstract.

It's unlikely that there will be a more diverse, pleasurably confusing, radically unpredictable album in 2010. It's also unlikely that there will be another album with as convincing and exciting a vision. This is brighter, more celebratory and at times more accessible than previous Flying Lotus records - but it's certainly no artistic compromise.

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