Sunday, May 2, 2010

"We're Not Above Reviewing Leaks": Flying Lotus - Cosmogramma

There's something about Flying Lotus's new album, Cosmogramma that reminds me of Blade Runner. When I first saw Blade Runner, right around the time I was twelve, I didn't really enjoy it, or get it. At the time, my appreciation of sci-fi was limited to those two monolithic pop-sci-fi franchises--the "Star Wars/Trek" behemoths--and everything else, especially if it was a little bit dark, didn't interest me all that much. With time, I eased into darker sci-fi through Aliens, then Alien. Long story short, Ridley Scott's dark vision in Alien impressed me so much that I finally revisited Blade Runner, and it's been one of my favorite sci-fi films ever since. Why am I bringing this up now? Why start a review of the new Flying Lotus album with all sorts of rambling about my own interest in sci-fi films, growing up? For two reasons: first, my experience with Flying Lotus was very similar to my experience with Blade Runner; and second, there's something about the way that Cosmogramma sounds and how it's put together that reminds me of Blade Runner. To be more specific, Cosmogramma builds on Flying Lotus's previous outstanding work of building beats and playing electronic textures off of one another, while infusing a bit more of a jazz influence. The combination of these textures gives the album a dark, sci-fi noir kind of vibe--futuristic and claustrophobic, but not at the expense of aggressively accessible beats and arrangements.

Now, before I go on, let me clarify something. In describing Cosmogramma as aggressively accessible, I don't mean it in any traditional sense of the word. In fact, the album doesn't offer much in the way of hooks, strong melodies, or catchy beats. What makes the album accessible though is its sheer audacity in bringing together dense atmospherics with perfectly chosen samples--it's an accessibility that isn't easy, but engaging. The album is accessible only in so far as it urges access, rather than making access easy.

Truth be told, it is the album's ability to urge us inward, to beckon us inside, that illustrates it's true power. This conflict between dense production and engaging textures is apparent from the get go. Album opener "Clock Catcher" assaults listeners with a glitchy barrage of electronic noise before succumbing to ethereal harp, then reverting back into abrasive noise. "Zodiac Shit," starts with delicate keys that give way to an oddly syncopated beat that staggers forward like a push-me-pull-me, a thing with two heads fighting over which direction to turn. What's staggering about the song is that the melodic elements, culled from samples, mostly, work as counter-rhythms, unsettling the beats until they just give up--and all of this happens in less than three minutes. "Arkestry" pushes Flying Lotus's sound even further, grounding it's opening in a jazz drum solo, then layering other textures--a sax solo, harp, and subtle keys--around the solo to come up with one of the slickest sounding jazz based cuts I've heard in years. For a moment, the song almost had me convinced that Jazz isn't dead. Of course, Cosmogramma also has its share of aggressively weird moments, including the unsettling, low-key, electric piano and buried rapping psychedelia of "Satelllliiiiiiiiiteeeee," and the ping pong as beats (don't worry, there are also beats as beats), future-damaged torch song "Table Tennis," with guest vocals from Laura Darlington.

Cosmogramma is a stunning album, there is no doubt about that. Flying Lotus has managed to craft an entirely consistent, and utterly engaging album by building one of the densest, but mot enticing atmospheres to come along in some time. And, while the album is largely dominated by electronics and cyborg-nightmare production, its rare glimpses of humanity--a warm, vintage drum solo, a rare moment of pure acoustic guitar, or harp flourishes--keep the album grounded. It's a testament to Flying Lotus that, this deep into my review, I haven't even mentioned Thom Yorke's guest spot singing on "...And the World Laughs With You." It's a nice enough vocal, but it doesn't make or break the album. Truth is, as with all of the album's guest spots--which includes Thundercat, in addition to Thom Yorke and Laura Darlington--come off as exactly what the record needs. None of the visits are contrived or gimmicky, to the point that, were it not for the album's credits, I'd just have assumed that the guest performances were just additional samples dropped in for effect.

In a year over-saturated with excellent albums, Cosmogramma stands out from the crowd. It isn't just a solid record, it is one of the most fully realized, brilliantly executed albums that we've heard this year. I rarely like to make these kinds of predictions, but having spent several weeks with this leak--and looking forward to picking up a copy on vinyl this week--I can easily see this as a top five album this year. Considering its going up against the likes of Joanna Newsom, LCD Soundsystem and a host of other heavy hitters, that's pretty impressive.


Flying Lotus's Cosmogramma is available on 5/4 from Warp. Also, from what I've seen, this thing's got some exquisite artwork/packaging. Definitely seems worth a pick up.

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