Thursday, May 30, 2019

album review: 'flamagra' by flying lotus

So I'll admit I had to go back and relisten to Cosmogramma and You're Dead! before making this review - and it probably was the first time in five years that I've done so.

And that looks bad, obviously, as both are genuinely great albums that take tangled, jazzy experimentation in their electronic tones and dive into rabbit holes rife with strange samples, twisted analog synths, and the sort of alien vibe that commands the sort of pit-in-your-stomach dread as much as it does my respect and wonder. And that's the funny thing for me: Steven Ellison aka. Flying Lotus creates thematically cohesive, amazingly intricate, and remarkably textured albums that can synthesize genuine beauty... but often cycle around existential themes and central ideas that can be deeply unsettling if you stare into that abyss, and are really best consumed as one long look. People tend to forget that certain tones of Cosmogramma were synthesized from samples of vital-sign monitors and respirators in his dying mother's hospital room, and it's also one reason I've always found it strange that Flying Lotus recruits guest artists for verses on projects like You're Dead! for isolated pieces that feel like fragments separated from a larger album - what might be more startling is how often it manages to work.

So we're dealing with prodigious amounts of talent here... so why has it taken us five years to get a new album when they normally come around a fair bit more quickly? Well, Ellison put out a contentiously received anthology film called Kuso in 2017 and he's been contributing music to other projects, but this year we got news about his newest and longest project planned to date, a concept album surrounding fire, filled with guests from long-running collaborator Thundercat to notable names like Anderson .Paak, Solange, Denzel Curry, and Shabazz Palaces, all the way to surprises like George Clinton, Tierra Whack, and David Lynch. So okay, what rabbit hole is Flying Lotus pulling us into this time? this isn't quite what I expected. Maybe it was the expectations following a project focusing on the urgency of the end of life and the idea that this was going to focus more on fire, but further investigation has shown that if this album has a cohesive theme at all - and that is an open question because it's loose at best - it's more about a fire on the hill, that creative flame on the horizon to spark inspiration, the torch in the distance. The issue is that eventually you'd like to think you'd get to that flame and maybe even get an explosion, and that's one big reason I'm a fair bit cooler on Flamagra than I was previous Flying Lotus projects. Don't get me wrong, it's far from bad - it's well-produced, there are potent, incredibly well-composed moments and a few standout guests - but it's rare we hit the paradox of a scattered, piecemeal project that does feel cohesive, but also feels as such because of a compromised atmosphere and just not as interesting or vibrant as before - a ton of raw kindling, but with a project this long, a lot of misspent matches.

And what gets frustrating is that if you're looking for a straightforward culprit to assign responsibility, I'm not sure you have that, especially given that we have to start this conversation with compositional structure. Yeah, you could highlight how given the much greater role that Thundercat has in production and in pumping up the basslines that you're immediately going to increase the low-end presence and thus to compliment him the percussion will default to more standard four-on-the-floor progressions that are less jazzy and experimental. Hell, simply on the basis of having more of that fat foundation and the style of bass that Thundercat plays you're going to see more steps towards composed funk and less towards the cavernous, alien, electronic weirdness that has previously been Flying Lotus' hallmark on his best albums - but also on that basis, you'd like to think if you're taking more controlled groove progressions, you'd get more developed songs or at the very least a consistent sense of flow between cuts. And yet with Flamagra it seems like you're getting neither fully developed pieces in the vein of songs that would have well been singles in the past, or a sense that many of these fractured pieces blend into each other. And thus when you couple it with only sparing moments of explosive, frenetic energy, you have the feeling like Flying Lotus will dabble in a sound or style for a short time before wandering to a different vibe in the possibility something might click, relying more on similar tones and groove to cultivate cohesion than similar melodic tones or a consistent sense of atmosphere or any sort of lyrical focus. 

Now like with You're Dead!, I can see the thematic reason for cramming twenty seven tracks into this hour-plus tracklist - if the distant fire is symbolic of inspiration, it makes sense that the creative process has so many false starts and scattered moments, with a pulsating core that might not have the same frenetic force but is always present. But this raises some very real questions, the first coming in terms of atmosphere. While the unsteady groove was always a major contributor to the weirdness of previous projects, I can't overstate how important that larger sense of scale was in the mix depth, tonal choice, and melodies, that the songs could be all-encompassing and swallow you whole. And while you get choice moments where the mix does deepen, the supple bass always feels reassuring and the carefully arranged, mostly organic background tones add a richness and twinkle that nevertheless feels a bit more stable and dare I even say conventional... but if you choose to go down that route, the weird tonal choices become less anathema and more quirks or flights of fancy, and when a lot of the momentum has been pitched out the window, especially on the album's final third, the feeling of anticlimax becomes persistent. You want these pieces to pay off and punch, but only a few do, and it's mostly thanks to guest stars stepping up to try and add lyrical mystique. Now again, there are tonal missteps here: I'm on the fence if all of Tierra Whack's lyrical embellishments add up especially when they're more squawking and staccato compared to a good verse, and the more Toro y Moi steps into his falsetto 'la la las' off that canned gurgle of a guitar tone on '9 Carrots', the less I like it, and it's hard to avoid the feeling that like with Snoop Dogg's presence on You're Dead! we only got 'Burning Down The House' for George Clinton to be creepy and weird. But it's the right kind of creepy and weird here, and it's certainly more welcome than Little Dragon and Shabazz Palaces continuing to be underwhelming. And while many have highlighted 'More' as a standout with Anderson .Paak's bleary-eyed verses, the song has to restart after the intro to even get going and it clearly feels like a few pieces mashed together. No, if I were to highlight a few standouts - outside of David Lynch delivering an appropriately Twilight Zone-esque monologue on 'Fire Is Coming' and Thundercat actually sounding okay vocally on 'The Climb' - it'd probably come from Solange's dispirited cooing amidst the ash-laiden murk and beautiful strings of 'Land Of Honey' and especially Denzel Curry on 'Black Balloons Reprise', but that's because it's positioned as a weird but potent as hell apocalyptic end to the 'black balloons trilogy' that Denzel Curry started on TA1300, and here he embraces more gothic melody and brings at least a trace of that alienating danger back.

But beyond those... when I reviewed You're Dead! five years ago I structured things to go through the album piece by piece, trace the arc, but outside of some vague allusions to a circular structure with the crackle of fire and pitched-down murmurs that shows on the beginning and end of the project, I'm not sure if there's a point, because for every striking moment there's one that feels obtuse or weirdly garish for its own sake, and few of them connect to form a broader thematic flow. And even then, I have to question why certain songs were given full development and others were left hanging, the most blatant example being 'Takashi', which takes the jittery but canned funk groove in the guitar and bass and stretches it off synths that are borderline chiptune, overmixed organ and rattling percussion - for six minutes! Why didn't you take that same opportunity to expand some of the fluttery strings and deeper atmosphere of 'Inside Your Home', or the eerie layering of 'Andromeda', or the lower fidelity textured smolder of 'Pygmy'? Sure, a song like 'Thank U Malcolm' works well as a sparse jazzy tribute near the end of the album, and I actually think 'Remind U' has just enough body and elegance to stick the landing with its short run-time... but then why follow it with the creaking strings and abrupt pianos of 'Say Something' that completely shifts the atmosphere? And for every good moment I've mentioned, there are plenty that feel either undercooked - like the cycling, bleeping progressions on 'Heroes In A Half Shell' or the underwhelming lack of payoff on 'Find Your Own Way Home' - or just irritating, zany for its own sake like the weirdly blown out 'Capillaries' or the garish chiptune-esque tones on 'All Spies' or especially the fidgety honks that try to transition into an atmospheric finish on 'Pilgrim Side Eye' that meshes with nothing. I've already brought up flow, but it's all the more relevant here, as this album is peppered with fragments that could have been cut and maybe some deeper smolder and atmosphere could have been maintained outside of the basslines.

But as a whole... again, it's not bad and I can absolutely see those who are just looking for Thundercat's bass and Flying Lotus' creative meanderings to wash over them, who will probably praise the hell out of this album. But it's a project where so many pieces feel either overworked or undercomposed, and then sprayed in a pattern that doesn't flow nearly as well, built to be picked over and rearranged with a personalized track list that trims out the fat... but that's also not the album we got. But as a whole... look, nobody can deny the production is lush and layered and that there are fascinating ideas here and some great guest performances, but so few of them coalesce beyond fractured moments - and yet maybe those are enough. And thus for me I'm giving this an extremely light 7/10 - this is patchwork and messy and a lot less consistent and workable than it'll get credit, but enough of that fire still burns and can explode, and I do respect that. Tough record to recommend your average listen check out, especially without an obvious single beyond the Denzel Curry cut... but yeah, it's worth a shot, give it a listen.

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