Two years ago, Stephen Ellison constructed a dark and crackly sound collage inspired by his homebase and titled it Los Angeles. But even when using his earthly residence as a backdrop for his abstract, frantically shifting hip-hop compositions, the man still sounds as if he’s broadcasting from a far off satellite. Flying Lotus’ third album, Cosmogramma, is a bit more abstract in its title-I have no idea what that means…if it means anything (ed note: helpful reader Giovanni pointed out that it’s a spin-off of a cosmogram). But he certainly got the cosmo part right; FlyLo finally fulfilled his promise of blasting off into a far off nebula, and beamed down his most awe-inspiring album in the process.
Principally constructed from the same aesthetic on Los Angeles-woozy sound collages, sci-fi synth patches, static-ridden beats and the occasional opium den vocal-but here, everything is magnified, stretched out and intensified. Cosmogramma is a hip-hop album, but not explicitly so. Sometimes it’s space-pop, sometimes it’s jazz fusion, and it’s almost always blissfully symphonic while taking on any of these stylistic transformations. Even when Ellison wigs out completely, as on the Squarepusher-style hyper-speed bass attack of “Pickled!”, he still retains a sense of style and finesse that makes such oddball exercises completely entrancing.
Picking up where 2008’s “Parisian Goldfish” left off, Flying Lotus more openly embraces the banger on Cosmogramma, flecking the album with a higher volume of uptempo tracks and dense, even danceable jams. The most direct of these is “Computer Face/Pure Being,” which initially throws down a repeating beat of hyperactive clicks and cymbals before being overtaken by layers of aggressively fuzzy synth. The smoother, yet still hard grooving “Do the Astral Plane” relies less on heavy effects, instead building upon a hazy, yet gorgeous vocal sample. “Dance of the Pseudo Nymph,” meanwhile, doesn’t take as direct an approach, but its serpentine bassline rockets the track into an infectious upward momentum. And some dude named Thom Yorke shows up on “…And the World Laughs With You,” effectively marrying Radiohead’s alt-prog dynamic to FlyLo’s hypnotic beats.
On a handful of occasions, FlyLo indulges his improvisational free jazz influences, which shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise-he is a blood relative of the Coltrane family after all. “German Haircut” is two minutes of space-age effects and stunning saxophone, courtesy of Ravi Coltrane. Prior to that, Lotus channels the great Sun Ra via “Arkestry,” which comprises a floating, nebulous bed of effects and a crate full of drum wizardry. These moments are but small interludes on an album of dazzling tracks that pulse and strut, leap and shake. “Zodiac Shit” is especially fantastic, juxtaposing banging bass and snare against a gorgeously looping melody. “Drips/Auntie’s Harp” seems to be almost too many things at once, packing in the sounds of an ornate orchestral arrangement, 8-bit synth exercises, and, true to the title, harp. Somehow, it all works in unison, each element complementing each other and coalescing into a vibrant whole. Album closer “Galaxy In Janaki,” however, is one of the strongest pieces on all of Cosmogramma, with keyboards billowing atop a cinematic sonic curtain, and Ellison’s trademark, static-washed beats. That it only lasts two and a half minutes is its only flaw.
So I hear, Flying Lotus is still a Los Angeles resident, but the world he’s created on Cosmogramma is galaxies away, if it’s a mile. Last time it was the weirdest, coolest afterparty ever, this time he’s inviting everyone to a shindig on the moon. By the time he gets to his fourth album, he could very well be making his music by way of time machine.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.