Flying Lotus – ‘Cosmogramma’: Round 83 – Rob’s choice

Flying Lotus - CosmogrammaA fine and crafty theme set by Tom when, at the end of the last round – ‘Instrumentals’ – he decreed that next time we should bring a record by an artist that had been referred to previously in that evening’s typically meandering and haphazard discussion. This made easy work for Graham, who had openly flip-flopped between two instrumental choices and then promised to bring his second (‘Laughing Stock’, a justified second best to ‘The Four Seasons’ in my book and not even anywhere near being an instrumental) to the next meeting. The rest of us went scurrying to our mental notepads. I ended up with an unworkable shortlist of Nils Frahm, Earth, Sun Kil Moon and Sonic Boom – all of which are too long, and one of which I’m not even sure was mentioned – plus Mekons, J Dilla and Flying Lotus. So, after typically scant deliberation, it’s over to Steven Ellison, for it is he.

I only have two Flying Lotus records, this one, his third, and it’s predecessor, ‘Los Angeles’. I like both a great deal and they seem to straddle a crucial bridging point in the career of this Californian producer and composer. ‘Los Angeles’ is a solid collection of woozy, glitchy instrumental hip-hop, shot through with a certain nervous, questing energy. I used to like putting it on as background music when we had guests, partly because every so often someone or other would urgently ask me to turn it off. It carries hidden traps and toxins.

‘Cosmogramma’ is a huge leap forward. Right from the get-go ‘Clock Catcher’ this is an urgent, overloaded and thoroughly urban music. Beats tumble over one another, live and electronic instruments vie for attention and the resultant sounds are fleeting and dizzying, hard to catch.

The complexity, or at least the sheer pace and density, of some of these compositions is outrageous and, for all that it harks back to the past, whisking together jazz, funk, soul, disco, electronica and hip-hop, the sheer teeming mass marks this out as music that could only have been made in the 21st century. Once you’ve been through ‘Cosmogramma’ a few times, enough to be able to draw breath as it plays, there emerges a tantalising, twisted tension at its heart. For me, this is a jazz record as much as anything else. In spirit always, and directly in sound at times, it pushes for the sort of wildness and controlled chaos that drives the Coltrane record Tom brought to our last meeting (Ellison, as it happens, is grand-nephew to John and Alice Coltrane). Unlike ‘Los Angeles’ much of this album consists of live performances (including from Ravi Coltrane, John and Alice’s son) and the torque that drives the record comes from the rub of these freewheeling live takes against the meticulous, painstaking work that Ellison, a laptop composer at heart, must have put in, beat by beat, second by second, to stitch this, his vision, together.

I know from previous conversations that Nick has a problem with the sound of ‘Cosmogramma’ and hopefully he’ll elucidate in his comments. Something about the sound being too compressed. He’s always banging on about that sort of stuff. To my ears the congested sound is in its favour. One of the breakthrough moments I had when I first got this record was when I realised that this wasn’t supposed to be an exquisite soundscape sculpted on state of the art machinery, instead it sounds like standing on a busy street corner and tuning in to the music flooding from car stereos, shop fronts and headphones. It’s a possible flip-side to ‘In A Silent Way’, a record that always struck me as the sound of a city at 3am. ‘Cosmogramma’ is the noise that is absent from ‘Silent Way’ and vice versa. It’s the sound of the same street corner at 3pm. The album conjures the warp and weft of a heaving city. It bristles with uncontainable life. And like a modern city, it is replete with alleyways and flyovers, heaving with life and stories and a breathing rhythm all of its own which only begins to emerge after you have lived within it, and continues to change every time you step into it.

Nick Listened: Emma refused to let me buy the last Flying Lotus album, going so far as to take it out of my hands and put it back on the shelf in HMV. “You’ll only moan about it being compressed” she said, almost certainly correctly. On paper FlyLo appeals – experimental electronic music with a big dose of jazz being right up my alley – but the empirical (phenomenological?) experience of actually listening to his records always gives me a headache. At a guess this is because of the crazy compression and side-chaining he employs to make his music (very deliberately) sound the way it does. Which, as Rob describes, is a busy, schizophrenic, distracted, urban sound. Which some people love, but I generally do not; I prefer records a bit more suburban, or rural perhaps, with space and light amongst the component parts. The juxtaposition of fractured, melting beats and dense, layered electronics and jazz on display here is dizzying when everything pumps together.

I’ve actually come to enjoy Cosmogramma quite a lot over the years, following my initial instinct to recoil from its extreme surfaces (although I still can’t deal with the follow-up at all). The second half eases up a little, becomes a little more spacious and easy to inhabit. Interestingly, Rob played it on vinyl, the limitations of which mean you literally just can’t push things as hard as on CD (the needle would jump right out of the groove), although a side-effect is that you need to change disc on this relatively short record three times. So yes, I’d probably listen to it more if it was less in-my-face, but it is a pretty damn good record just as it is.

Tom listened: Flying Lotus is one of those names that has been bandied around for a few years now, its profile ever more prominent since 6 Music and Pitchfork latched onto Cosmogramma and have never really looked back. Despite this, I had never knowingly heard anything from Cosmogramma before and listening to it tonight, that isn’t all that surprising – this didn’t strike me as the sort of album that you’d be pulling individual ‘songs’ from very often and there was certainly nothing remotely like a chart hit to be found in its incredibly densely packed grooves.

I wasn’t really sure what to make of this to be honest – I don’t knowingly share Nick’s misgivings but I suspect that that may be solely because I don’t have the skill or knowledge to identify them. I liked parts of Cosmogramma for sure but there was something about the jarring nature of the tracks – the way they seemed to hurtle one into the next – that made it feel quite alienating on a first listen.

To sum up…intriguing, beguiling  and difficult in just about equal measure as far as I was concerned.

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