Album Review: Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma

[Warp; 2010]

Steven Ellison (better known as Flying Lotus) didn’t really need to change up too much on his new record. 2008’s Los Angeles was a stunning, inventive, dreamy effort; cherry picking from the likes of J Dilla and Burial, forming it until he had his own miraculous sound. The beats weren’t just beats, the bass not just something to tickle your subs, vocal samples were not just something to fill the space: everything was exactly right, painstakingly crafted. The album was the soundtrack to a good nine months of my life, unlike anything I had heard before, and so now, everything I hear similar to it is judged to this high watermark.

So in case you hadn’t noticed, I really liked the record. Ellison could have simply gone back to square one and pumped out the same thing, same length, same style; I would have eaten it up – loved it; and with good reason.

But, as Cosmogramma has revealed, he didn’t. After a new chapter of his life has been opened, with the death of his mother and all of his new found fame andfortune, so has a new chapter of his musical career. He recently told Clash Magazine that he had “a journey within” in making this record, and it shows. Cosmogramma isn’t something to put on and dance the night away to, it’s a more personal, more introspective, mature record. For those of you looking for the next party favourite, they’re in here, but they’re underneath layers of orchestral shimmering, free jazz, joyous, celebratory choirs and Squarepusher style bass freak-outs. If you had told me a year ago that there would be a track on the next Flying Lotus album without any drums, I wouldn’t have believed you. Here, it’s a common occurrence.

Things begin slowly and awkwardly. The first few tracks shoot by, stopping and starting at their will. The tracks are well produced, but seem like scattershot unfinished sketches, or ambient interludes out of place. A strange way to start things, but with repeated playing they feel natural and right. Things pick up when the hugely publicized collaboration with Thom Yorke hits centre stage – “…And The World Laughs With You” is a glitchy, bright track with downright gorgeous vocal adjustments and, to be honest, I can’t believe no-one had ever thought of pairing these two up before. Preceding that is another highlight, “Computer Face//Pure Being,” a track of almost heavy metal proportions. Buzz synth’s attack from all directions.

From that moment on, the album gains momentum and Ellison’s skills as a producer shine. Utilizing what sound like samples, but are actually guest spots from a wide range of harpists, keyboardists and bass virtuoso Thundercat all throughout. Nothing overstays its welcome, and every segue and transition is perfectly matched. Keys are delicately sprinkled about, drum introductions thunder in and every string part somehow fits in an album mostly full of hip hop.

That is, it’s mostly full of hip-hop, several tracks on Cosmogramma are, well, classical-hop. Strings on an album like this is nothing new, but they’ve never been done this well before, nor have they been embedded amongst the bass drops and hi hats as skilfully. And it’s not just the string work that sounds strangely right. The jazzier sections of this album show a man who has spent all of his life listening to the genre. He clearly knows what he’s doing, and his foray into this genre is risky and pulled off perfectly.

But it’s not all perfect – tracks such as “Mmmhmm” are definitely out of place, and quite often the tempo and flow that Ellison builds up is quickly stopped, but perhaps this is an artistic choice. In seventeen tracks he manages to cover a lot of ground, and like The White Album, sometimes your favourite style isn’t developed on enough for your taste. Also, if you’re like me, you’ll find Laura Darlington’s voice hard to handle, and her appearance here on “Table Tennis” seems like it’s just following a formula of her previous Flying Lotus guest spots; this is the third album in a row she’s featured in the last or penultimate track. But with every low point, there’s a high one – the backing track on “Table Tennis” is amazing, and even features live acoustic guitar, another first.

This album is a bold new move for Flying Lotus, Cosmogramma is the result of one man’s hard work and dedication to his craft. Ellison has the guts to take a genre that was already his and claim it even more, twisting it on its head and creating something new. This album is a hazy, dreamy, well oiled machine; perfectly crafted and, I suspect, will be a gateway album to many more of its kind for more than a few people. Where will he go next? I’d like to guess, but I’m sure I’d be wrong.