Los Angeles received a great deal of acclaim when it dropped back in 2008, and deservedly so; Flying Lotus had produced an outstanding collection of instrumental hip-hop tracks which not only blended well together, but hinted at a great diversity in influences. No one imagined, however, that it would hint at a diversity as monstrous as that presented on Cosmogramma, his latest effort. Flying Lotus (born Steven Ellison) really cuts loose here, and draws from a multitude of musical stylings, but as huge and full as the sound gets on this album, it never sounds self-indulgent or over-the-top, and that is largely where its genius lies.
Cosmogramma is packed with ideas to the point of being staggering, yet somehow maintains a superb balance with pop sensibilities so as to keep the music's unbridled imagination smooth, controlled, and appealing. Pickled! and Nose Art serve as a brilliant example of this, firstly in how seamlessly they bleed into one another (I'll get back to this) but even more in the juxtaposition of fun hip-hop beats, ethereal atmosphere, and catchy melodies. Nose Art in particular boasts a gorgeous, airy feel, floating over clanging percussion, with a beat that sounds like a meld of hip-hop and house, and a very in your face electro hook. Not only are the basic sounds vastly different, but each sensibility is so strong that the listener almost feels pulled in multiple directions - it's so beautiful, but it's so aggressive, and equally addictive in each regard. Free form jazz is abundant throughout, but is so well interlocked with funk, hip-hop, house, trip-hop, and even psychedelia (this list could go on and on, the sheer number of influences FlyLo manages to fit in here is astounding unto itself) find a curious balance and elevate the sound on Cosmogramma as not so much a great instrumental hip-hop album as an entirely new genre altogether.
FlyLo makes great use of the guest vocalists here, as well. Thom Yorke lends his voice to And the World Laughs with You, an alluringly sinister cut, but more to harmonize than sing, really, crooning along with the spacey, psychedelic synths in between a plea of "I need to know you're out there, I need to know you're listening" that borders on indifference. Laura Darlington shines in another understated performance on Table Tennis, a track built around ping pong ball sound effects and an acoustic guitar.
As mentioned before, another strong point of Cosmogramma is its spectacular pacing and flow. Mmmhmm and Do the Astral Plane, for instance, should not go this well together. The former is a plethora of sad sounding synths layered over a funky bass and echo heavy guitar, with such a coldness that it gives one images of flying out into space. The underlying beat, however, keeps it not only from slipping into heavy melancholy, but upbeat enough that you don't notice the scat-laced interlude leading into Astral Plane, and once the pulsating, house-y beat kicks in, it feels as if it shouldn't have been any other way. German Haircut's nearly unadulterated jazz eases into the busy ambient house-meets-IDM of Recoiled in a similarly flawless fashion, and so on, and so forth... there is simply no out of place moment here. And considering that this is over seventeen tracks covering a massive plethora of genres, it really is quite a feat.
What makes Cosmogramma so great is that it really reminds us of not only what electronic music is capable of, but why it's come to be in the first place. There's a reason that rock bands like Radiohead and the Flaming Lips have turned to electronics over the course of their musical evolution; it's a means of expressing ideas that simply can't be by organic means, ideas that stretch the imagination past what human limitations will allow. It's become too easy to see it as a refuge of laziness in recent years, and Flying Lotus' latest is unshakable evidence to the contrary.