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Flying Lotus: Flamagra

Flying Lotus: Flamagra

The music seems made not of arches and ribbons but of great oblong bricks and panels.

Flying Lotus: Flamagra

3.5 / 5

Flying Lotus’ Flamagra plays more like a modern jazz monolith in the vein of Wadada Leo Smith’s America’s National Parks or Wayne Shorter’s Emanon than the fleet-footed albums Steven Ellison made in Brainfeeder’s early days. At a little over an hour it’s not as long as those records, but that runtime’s still split over 27 tracks, and there’s a strong impression of implacability and immovability. Rather than threading great gossamer webs of sound between the snap of unruly, militantly unquantized snares, Ellison lays down crisp, basic drum-machine beats and goes nuts over them with all kinds of jazz runs and chords and dense arrangements, and Miguel Atwood-Ferguson’s string arrangements are never far away. The music seems made not of arches and ribbons but of great oblong bricks and panels. It looks less like a cathedral than a ziggurat.

This is odd because the element it’s meant to represent is fire, which typically dances and leaps much as Flying Lotus tracks tend to. But while You’re Dead could reasonably be about life after death and Until the Quiet Comes totally sounds like dreams, the fire thing feels like a red herring, a spark of inspiration rather than an undergirding concept.

What makes Flamagra a bit tricky to get a foothold on is precisely this lack of an easy guide. It’s his most self-contained music, and because it puts so little stake in sound design it demands you appreciate Flying Lotus as a musician rather than a producer. He says he recently learned to read music, and it shows. His keyboard chops are more apparent than ever, and he’s often spelling out big, spiky chords on the surface of the mix with big, unwieldy synth presets; the droll fairytale theme “Heroes on the Half Shell” does more than one thought was possible with the chintzy fake horn sounds that are a staple of every MIDI pack.

Maybe he’s a little embarrassed at being the inadvertent godfather of the chill-hop movement. When “FF4” begins it feels like a joke, a reminder that Flying Lotus has little to do with the inoffensive homework soundtracks we find on YouTube even though he could shit most of those beats out in his sleep. What’s odd is that an album this obstinate would be so full of buzzy guests. Maybe he’s trying to foster the same free-flowing collaborative environment that makes for great jazz, but Ellison has cast his die with serial track-hoppers like Little Dragon and cool rap stars like Denzel Curry and Anderson .Paak rather than anyone who might bring an interesting texture to this music. Kamasi Washington, for instance, is absent despite FlyLo’s Brainfeeder label being essential to his rise as one of modern jazz’s giants.

One guest who makes sense is David Lynch on “Fire is Coming,” though we might want to add “out of the monkey’s head” to the title after we’ve heard his cryptic spoken-word ramblings. Like a latter-day Lynch film, Lost Highway or Inland Empire perhaps, Flamagra is a plotless behemoth that appeals less to the lizard brain than the part of the mind that likes getting lost in a maze of clues that may or may not add to something. Whether it’s something you’ll want to return to and figure out depends on how you respond to its superficial thrills, and those it yields only stubbornly. This is a tough nut to crack.

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