Flying Lotus

(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use)
1983 (2006), 6.5/10
Los Angeles (2008), 6/10
Cosmogramma (2010), 7/10
Until The Quiet Comes (2012), 6/10
You're Dead (2014), 5/10
Flamagra (2019), 4/10

(Clicka qua per la versione Italiana)

Los Angeles-based producer Steven Allison, better known as Flying Lotus, was emblematic of a generation that was employing laptop computers to generate sounds that were impossible before. The mostly instrumental 1983 (2006) also displayed a broad range of stylistic influences, in particular the passion for revisiting the instrumental music of the 1960s. The overture 1983 bridged three eras by blending sound collage, hip-hop beat and synthesized carillon-like melody (that the final remix turns into a silly singalong). A twisted sense of humor brings him to stage the grotesque vaudeville dance of Pet Monster Shotglass and to mock the guitar-based atmospheric instrumentals in Bad Actors. At the same time Allison likes to engage in an abstract form of dance-music that can be both inarticulate and shapeless (Untitled #7, the acid hyper-syncopated Sao Paulo). The cold mechanic ballet Orbit Brazil is almost ominous. The one actual song, Unexpected Delight, sounds like a hip-hop version of Air and Stereolab. His production style, this disorienting way of moving in and out of focus, was influential on the "wonky" scene.

Los Angeles (Warp, 2008) is a much lighter work. When they appear, vocals are a mixed blessing: the hypnotic ethereal lullaby Auntie's Lock, the dilated and distorted ballad Roberta Flack, and the slow acid-blues litany Testament are intriguing but hardly revolutionary. The bulk of the collection consists of classy multifaceted instrumentals such as Beginners Falafel (cyclic beats, sensual galactic wails, synth bubbles), Comet Course (frenzied Caribbean beat, ghostly voices, liquid jazzy keyboards), and Riot (a dubby cacophony that slowly disintegrates like in a nervous breakdown). The winners are a couple of rhythmic montages (the Indian hoe-down that mutates into a gargantuan drum'n'bass in GNG BNG and the demented batucada of Parisian Goldfish) and a couple of atmospheric meditations (the cosmic psychedelic Golden Diva with sexy pulsations, and the sound collage over swampy beat of Breathe Something/ Stellar Star). Flying Lotus' aesthetic might be best summarized by the impressionistic Brian Eno-esque vignettes, notably the stuttering videogame-inspired Sleepy Dinosaur, the reverbed symphonic overture Brainfeeder and the equatorial night pow-wow dance of Sex Slave Ship. That's where the chemistry of his laboratory excels.

Cosmogramma (Warp, 2010), ostensibly a tribute to his late aunt Alice Coltrane, exhibited a much busier production than any of the previous albums. Steven Allison used all his skills on laptop, sampler and drum machine, and integrated more generous doses than ever of live instrumentation. The general result is that his instrumentals jump out of the grooves. Clock Catcher is a pulsing dance between Rebecca Raff's harp and Ravi Coltrane's didjeridoo-sounding tenor saxophone. The chaotic brainy noise Pickled, the neurotic synth-dub Nose Art, the orchestral pastiche Intro A Cosmic Drama, the orgy of bass and keyboards Satelllliiiiiiiteee are, first and foremost, brief explosions of creative nonsense. That they are "brief" is the real problem. Galaxy In Janaki is a whirlwind of electronic effects and of strings à la orchestral soundtrack from the 1960s.
Several of these tiny demonstrations are about beat collisions, like the miniature rhythmic nightmares Zodiac Shit and Computer Face Pure Being. And The World Laughs With You is a loud melodic-robotic debate (before Thom Yorke pops in to ruin the whole experience). Melody takes the back seat. The only real "song" is Table Tennis, scored for ping-pong balls, guitar and ethereal vocalist.
The more refined and less indulgent disco skits corral the various ideas and funnel them into timbral dances. Propelled by a funk-exotic galopping beat, Do The Astral Plane comes to be dominated by a string section arranged by Miguel Atwood-Ferguson that plays a Morricone-like melody. Dance Of The Pseudo Nymph, a pseudo-batucada fueled by funk-jazz bass and disorderly clapping, is the catchiest moment on the album.
The legacy of free jazz finally shows up in the almost clownesque deconstruction of Arkestry, but it's Recoiled that, in theory, evokes the era of the great free saxophonists, except that the piece is about something else altogether (another postmodernist take on syncopated electronic dance music, i.e. on the age of drum'n'bass and dubstep).
Despite its pretext, the album is neither spiritual nor jazzy. It is a twitching snake of electronic dance music that rarely pauses. The main influences seem to be prog-rock, musique concrète and the intricate hip-hop productions of the time.

The seven-song EP Pattern + Grid World (2010) displayed an impressive range of ideas and depth of execution, from the synth-tinged Clay to the instrumental version of the single Camera Day.

Flying Lotus employed his meticulous, intricate, cluttered craftmanship for more atmospheric purposes on Until The Quiet Comes (Warp, 2012), featuring guests such as Erykah Badu, Thom Yorke, Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner and Austin Peralta. The album opens with the most nostalgic section: the shopping mall muzak of All In, a dreamy version of the soundtracks of 1960s beach movies in Getting There, the celestial new-age music of Until The Colours Come. After these brief mood pieces, the album shifts gear to a very electronic mode with the jazztronica of Heave[n] (sounding like a cubistic remix of Miles Davis), the bass-heavy shuffle of skipping beats Tiny Tortures the liquid propulsive piano jazz melody of All The Secrets, and especially the industrial avant-dubstep of Sultan's Request. The next section is more user-friendly, starting with the clownish synth-pop novelty Putty Boy Strut and the tribal Erykah Badu number See Thru To U (the first non-instrumental) followed by the tapping pseudo-flamenco galore of Until The Quiet Comes, and the plain techno dancefest The Nightcaller. The nocturnal, ambient, downtempo funk-jazz-hop of Only If You Wanna would be a highlight if it lasted at least two minutes. Instead it segues into a trio of songs: a confused gloomy pop ditty (Thom Yorke on vocals) like Electric Candyman, a ghostly, hermetic, post-Bjork ballad like Hunger (the best vocal piece here) and the hyper-ethereal Phantasm (that links back to the nostalgic leitmotiv of Getting There). The longest piece, Me Yesterday//Corded, is a kinetic collage of beats, synths and free vocals, but too aimless to count. If his previous albums required deep concentration to peel off the multiple layers, this one is simple background music for a sunny afternoon.

You're Dead (Warp, 2014) packs 19 very short pieces in a short album, and it is his jazziest album yet, perhaps completing a parable that was inevitable given his genes. Alas, none of the pieces stands on its own. As an autobiographical flow of influences, the album might have a value, but, aesthetically speaking, this is high-concept crap. Jazz keyboardist Herbie Hancock can elevate Moment of Hesitation to more than the incidental music that it is, and Angel Deradoorian can breathe life into Siren Song, and Kendrick Lamar can rap the lyrics of Never Catch Me as if it were a hit, but the truth is that the distinguished guests (including jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington, jazz percussionist Gene Coye, drummer Deantoni Parks, bassist Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner and rapper Snoop Dogg) are largely wasted.

The 27-song Flamagra (2019) proves the rule of thumg that "more" is often "less". The album contains very few songs that deserved to be released and way too many random collaborations (with Solange, George Clinton, Toro y Moi, Yukimi Nagano, Anderson .Paak, Denzel Curry, Thundercat, and even filmmaker David Lynch). These brief uninspired sketches (the hypnotic Prince-y soul More, the spastic singsong Burning Down the House, the soul-jazz instrumental Takashi) work better as parodistic skits (and sometimes it sounds like self-parody) than as serious artistic expression. Much of this album could have been done by any kid armed with a laptop.

(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use)
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