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Flying Lotus - Los Angeles

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Artist: Flying Lotus

Album: Los Angeles

Label: Warp

Review date: Jun. 20, 2008

Okay, we might as well get this out of the way, because every review of Los Angeles mentions one key reference point: Flying Lotus––née Steven Ellison––is the grandnephew of Alice Coltrane. It's a convenient and eye-catching association that will follow Ellison's career each step of the way. In fact, it was the extraordinary jazz musician's gentle nudging that pushed Ellison's career ambitions from filmmaking into music. And for that matter, Ellison shares Coltrane’s use of pulsing, breathy textures. His materials may be those of the Nintendo generation rather than the acoustic-based instrumentation of the 60s, but the importance of atmosphere and resonance––so crucial to Coltrane's blend of spiritual free jazz and cerebral modal music––are certainly not lost on Ellison.

But just how does one recreate the sense of room and tonal development in a world of digital samplers and sequencers? In this aspect, Ellison learns from his contemporary peers. His Warp full-length debut contains sonic elements akin to many like-minded Los Angeles musicians––Madlib, Ammoncontact, Daedelus, Sa-Ra Creative Partners, Nobody, Dntel, Koushik and Exile––and it’s also clear that Ellison has been influenced by the cream of the left-field instrumental hip-hop crowd––Jay Dee, Prefuse 73, Dabrye and Jnerio Jarel. All of these musicians/producers have mastered the process of stringing samples together fluidly in a haze of noise byproduct (static, fuzz, pops, crackle, etc). Likewise, Ellison’s work features few discernable loop breaks, while acoustic drums and live synthesizers work to disguise rigidity with layers of lapping sound. Somewhere along the way, Pete Rock's stiff but soulful rap productions crossed paths with Aphex Twin's avant-garde electronica and Rob Mazurek's 21st century psychedelic fusion to birth Flying Lotus, a headphone producer who bridges the world of beat, blip and bop.

Thankfully, Ellison doesn't stray too far from the framework he established on 1983, his Plug Research debut. There is a coherent sound throughout the album––psychedelic electro-hop perhaps––while each song develops fruitfully without ever being dragged out. In fact, about sixty percent of the tracks on Los Angeles fall in the two-and-a-half to four-minute range––just enough time to establish a groove and expound upon it without a sense of redundancy setting in. It's less jerkingly sporadic than Donuts (however brilliant), but more varied than a Sa-Ra produced record. And in that sense, Ellison––much like his great-aunt––has the ability to entrance. Trippy synth chords progress subtly; sparse boom-bap backdrops pronounce the meat of each song; jazz, funk, psych and worldly samples weave colorful melodies; and 8-bit video game sound effects keep each track continuously textured.

In a recent interview with XLR8R TV, Ellison divulged his love for the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, a series he helped to score early in his career. The episodes of schizophrenic late-night comedy are relatively short in comparison to television's typical half-hour fare––the humor may be beyond ridiculous, but it rarely takes a toll on your patience because it's finished in a third of the usual time. Ellison's productions may not have the severity of Adult Swim, but he certainly takes a few cues from their structural patterns. Los Angeles doesn't rely on elaborate set-ups or complicated narratives: A beat drops, the mood's established, a groove sets in, and Ellison tweaks it into a climax before quickly moving onto the next.

Thanks to the deeply saturated production, just minutes into Los Angeles you are already lost among the ebb and flow of the mercurial synths and adroit beats. A headphone listen is like sticking your head in a fish tank of blunted haze and aural psychedelics. The music may not be quite as spiritual as that of Ellison’s great-aunt, but it is no less ethereal, atmospheric and hypnotic––impressive for what is essentially an instrumental hip-hop record.

By Michael Ardaiolo

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