How has it been five years since the last Flying Lotus release? In no way does it feel like half a decade since ‘You’re Dead’, that epic post-mortuary odyssey that saw the artist born Stephen Ellison somehow finding joy in death (hard) and improvisatory jazz (even harder). This is partly because he never stopped creating, switching lanes to try his hand at film (if you haven’t yet seen his bizarre horror anthology ‘Kuso’, it’s best viewed with an empty stomach), but largely because his previously niche preoccupations – experimental jazz, Afrofuturism and black psychedelia – have now infiltrated the mainstream.
Having set the musical co-ordinates for a generation of game-changing artists – including BADBADNOTGOOD, Kendrick Lamar and long-time collaborator Thundercat – FlyLo became midwife to a cultural movement that outgrew him somewhere in the middle of the decade. For an artist accustomed to living on the cutting edge, being overtaken at your own game can be challenging. It is unsurprising to learn that this record was repeatedly delayed as Ellison struggled to create something with the same thematic tightness as ground-breaking albums like ‘Cosmogramma’, his search for the immutable laws that govern the universe, or ‘Until The Quiet Comes’, his exploration of fugue states and dreams.
But there is one defining theme that clearly runs through ‘Flamagra’ – spiritual communion. It might contain all the psychedelic meanderings, cartoon references and arcade game music diversions you expect from a FlyLo release, but at its heart ‘Flamagra’ is a warped gospel album. From its opening evocation, “We are now joined together again in this space that you’ve created”, via Anderson Paak.’s patented cries of “Yes Lawd!” to Solange’s impassioned “Alleluya!”s towards its close, there’s an undeniable sense of people coming together to celebrate something larger than themselves.
The organ-led ‘Takashi’ (which emerges as the clear centrepiece of the album upon repeat listens) somehow nails the vibe of a priest whipping his congregation up into spiritual ecstasy, despite the fact that it’s a completely instrumental piece.
A fire motif is present too, crackling away in the background and falling from the tongues of Ellison’s idols David Lynch and George Clinton (the latter in the mad pastor role he played to such effect on ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’). But rather than appearing as the force for destruction you might expect – given the wildfires ravaging FlyLo’s beloved Los Angeles – it largely manifests as the kind of holy, soul-cleansing flame beloved of allegory-hungry ministers around the world.
It’s unfortunate that in capturing the energy and fervour of an African-American church service, this record also nets their exhausting runtime (previous Flying Lotus albums cut off before 45 minutes, ‘Flamagra’ goes on for 67). Fans of his more experimental side may also feel let down by an album that overtakes ‘Until the Quiet Comes’ as his most accessible project. The harshness of ‘You’re Dead’ and its full-band improv is replaced by lush beats and choral backing. Though there is a run of songs (from the Thierra Whack-featuring ‘Yellow Belly’ to ‘Inside Your Home’) where his once-prevalent sense of dread reappears, Ellison seems largely to have got the horror out of his system.
Could there be an element of bandwagon-chasing to ‘Flamagra’? Gospel music, and the distinctly performance-orientated form of Christianity associated with it, seems to be having a cultural moment in much the same way jazz did a few years back, its fires fanned by the faithful and self-promoting trainer-floggers alike. In releasing his own, admittedly rather twisted and brilliant, take on this phenomenon, is Flying Lotus conceding his place on the cutting edge to a new wave of trailblazers? Or is he just following his cosmic muse to whichever spiritual plane it takes him? Whatever the truth of the matter, ‘Flamagra’ reminds us just how good Flying Lotus sounds when soundtracking transcendence.
Words: Josh Gray
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