Past, present, future

Pub date March 23, 2010

MUSIC Am I the only one who feels an overwhelming sensation of near implosion when listening to Flying Lotus? I’m not talking about Steven Ellison’s crackling, low-end production that leans on off-kilter percussion while swerving on warm synth melodies like the late great J Dilla tipping on trucks (although that liquidic soul is mad electrifying too). Ellison also summons this other lunatic style that seeps into my android brain right when I least expect. It’s a sort of smattering mercury-noise that builds to the point of maximum intensity and then falls away suddenly, disclosing a clearing of purplish-orange haze.

All that cyberkinetic production, however, works in tandem. Ellison’s gift is not so much that he can shock and awe with singular frenetic beats, but that he can craft a holistic mood that engages, holds, and in the thick of its hypnotic momentum, casts an entrancing spell. I’d make the case that the effect is a movement of dislocation and reembodiment, parallel to the transcendental objectives behind experimental forms of both spiritual and space jazz recorded in the late 1960s and ’70s. There’s no question that Ellison channels the celestial blood of Alice Coltrane (his great-aunt and perhaps greatest muse) in his testament. And just as those avant-garde jazz legends made headway finding musical freedom within intergalactic space-ways (the infinite within), Ellison charts something of a fractured spatio-temporal exploration himself.

I’m going to take a leap (if you will allow a journalist such an experiment) and tentatively pretend that the titles for Fly Lo’s records map the spiritual blueprint shaping his music. We’ll see if we can make some progress with this approach.

Ellison’s first full-length record, 1983 (Plug Research, 2006), marks the temporal origin of the 27-year-old and a return to a certain aesthetic sphere of possibilities. Ellison graces this effort with video game bleeps and zaps, that stark retro-futuristic sound of 1980s sci-fi film and monstrous joystick machines. But the drenched robotics nourishing “Massage Situation” and the warped sonic bits that weave through arresting drum programming in “Vegas Collie” don’t mine nostalgia. Instead, Ellison recontextualizes familiar sounds in magnetic ways, breathing life into vacuous drones from the past. History is revived to reimagine the future and overlay a richness of sensual value onto the present.

In 2008, Flying Lotus made ground with Los Angeles (Warp), a pioneering effort that won the ears of hip-hop heads, pitch-forking indie rockers, and electronic bass fiends/geeks alike. The record seems to have quickly become one of those pivotal works of art that serve as a reference point for nearly everything new school in electronic music. And Los Angeles, the city itself, the last stop on the New World’s burdened journey for Manifest Destiny, has also become such a symbolic environment for today’s musical wanderers. It’s a city of tense contradictions: endless opportunity and suffocation, cosmopolitan diversity and isolating segregation, an artificial neon-lit haven placed in a sun-choked desert by the sea. It’s not so different perhaps from that Old Word paradise mucked with broken dreams — Jerusalem. Such is the spatio-origin and milieu for Flying Lotus’ second full-length, as we hop on a sizzling “Camel” and “Melt!”; disintegrate into fuzz-drenched traffic on “Orbit 405”; and open our new metallic bodies in the whirlwind swamps around a “Parisian Goldfish.”

The third record on the horizon, Cosmogramma (Warp), set for release in the U.S. on May 4, breaks away from particular spatio-temporal signifiers to reach for the universal. Ellison baptized the record as a “cosmic drama,” and the title itself suggests nothing less than a grammar of infinitum. The single “Computer Face//Pure Being” is perhaps the best example yet of the antagonistic force that fuels Flying Lotus’ adventurous work. It incites a centrifugal experience — perilous and transformative — out of malfunctioning and utterly animate computer jazz. Yes, the age of machines with soul has dawned.


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Sat/27, 9 p.m., $17.50


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