Review Summary: Jump into the fire.
Ever the trailblazer, Steven Ellison is back at it once again with an album that is sure to be revered in the future amongst his finest works. Flamagra
is Ellison’s equivalent to a warm embrace, welcoming you into a world far different than any you’ve seen before, but not without its own intriguing twists and turns. It’s an uncompromising adventure that Ellison sets you out on, guiding you through many different worlds, sounds and concepts; although this all is united together under a singular concept of death, fire, and rebirth. This is not necessarily Ellison’s rejuvenation, but it’s more or less the start of a new era for Ellison under the Flying Lotus moniker. His music is a lot more free, energetic and dare I say, lively. Never has his work sounded so warm, uncalculated and soulful - this is not the Flying Lotus that put out Los Angeles
back in the day, but someone quite different.
Though many lambast the album’s first act for its supposed inconsistencies in quality, there’s an apparent genius in how superbly crafted this portion is, whether it’s the instrumental trio that christens the album, the funkiest feature this side of Parliament/Funkadelic with the George Clinton banger “Burning Down the House,” the Earth, Wind and Fire-inspired standout (and eventual classic) “Takashi” or the absurdly hilarious “Yellow Belly,” which has possibly some of the most unique beats Ellison has put to tape joining guest Tierra Whack’s equally unique verses that are some of the most quotable in the Flying Lotus canon. It’s not too outlandish to expect Ellison to outdo himself after 2014’s You’re Dead!,
which took the rulebook and kindly told it to fuck off, although it’s just as refreshing to see him follow such an album up with an overbranching work that doesn’t aim to reinvent the wheel, but instead emphasize his (and his guests’) strengths to the music’s benefit. Ellison, once more, looks back to his own musical heritage - not as in depth as You’re Dead!
and its venture through the jazzisms of the Coltranes, Hancock or Shorter, but through the musical DNA that inspired Ellison. It’s less Soft Machine and more Parliament/Funkadelic, but with the Flying Lotus stamp of approval - it’s just as weird, dynamic and otherworldly.
perceived overlength can also be seen as its greatest trump card, a tale of two sides (or in this case, for you vinyl lovers out there, four) with matching movements that join several concepts (of death, rebirth, etc.) only for something to rise out of the flames once the end has been reached, much like the mythical phoenix rising from its own ashes. Act One (“Heroes” to “Yellow Belly”) goes through many different ideas, although it’s arguably more of a complete set of songs conceptually than its other half, which temporarily diverges from the idea of flames and the life inside of them and into the darkness of death once more, via the Denzel Curry-feature “Black Balloons Reprise,” which viciously states of one’s own demise, the end of all beings, or to put it curtly, the goddamn apocalypse. Or perhaps it’s with Ellison’s own compositions for the late rapper (and friend) Mac Miller on a handful of cuts, most notably “Thank U Malcolm,” that Ellison sought to join a wider array of potential dialogues into Flamagra
but culled it enough to bring it to what we now have. It’s not an inferno as expected, but it’s still fierce.
Beyond the journey Ellison takes through musical history and conceptual hellfire, Flamagra
looks inward and almost comes off as a career retrospective, a greatest hits collection created for its own purpose. While some casually claim that Flying Lotus has a single cohesive sound, the path from 1983
to You’re Dead!
is wider than many realize, so to tie it all together is an achievement. More than just impressive, it’s outright fun, especially for long-time listeners. Many of them will have first heard his music through Los Angeles
, a loop-heavy “science-fiction soundtrack to a film that doesn’t really exist,” or through Cosmogramma
, a wide-ranging exploration of grief, spirituality and psychedelia. Flamagra
takes the best of his projects and amplifies their original goals, deeply cinematic and comprehensively explorative. “Fire Is Coming” sounds like something straight off a horror score, an impression that is probably made effective by Ellison’s work directing his own film in 2017, and of course amplified by David Lynch’s narration. Meanwhile, “Remind U” and “9 Carrots” use a layered take on downtempo and all the genres that have spun out of its web in the past decade or so to gleam a new calm from his usually anxious style, reminiscent to the acceptant groove that resolves “The Protest” at the finale of his last album.
Settling is the key here, and as harsh as that may sound, it’s for the best. Ellison has created songs that crawl in your ears, nestling into the spaces “Do The Astral Plane,” “Unexpected Delight” and “Putty Boy Strut” carved out so many years ago. They are what they are without attempting to push the very boundaries of genre, at least not to the extent they used to. As a result, this album has, to some extent, been seen as a major step back for his career, and there’s truth to that - when compared to his past works, it’s hard to see why it should stand out. But being the outlier isn’t everything in art, and just because he invented a style doesn’t mean he should be expected to invent another. Instead, he takes the twists and curves we’ve all grown familiar with and pushes them farther, mixing up a little bit of something for everyone that ultimately has the potential to grow into everything for his fans. This welcoming of where he’s at is reflected in his attitude, at least the attitude reflected in the press this hype cycle around. In his earliest years he was competitive and often pissed - a 2007 interview ends noting that “people who are making wack-ass beats are really making it easy for [FlyLo and other producers in the pre-Brainfeeder scene],” and one the next year shows him venting anger at a middling Pitchfork review, leaks, and people trying to get him to do an unnecessary collab with M.I.A. Even six years later, his restless aggression maintained itself in a 2014 interview with Fader that oozes loneliness in the wake of the deaths of his friends and family and disappointment in the very background role that the music industry had given him. The difference with present-day Ellison is striking: “I like to be surprised...the work reveals itself, it blossoms...I want it hopeful, I want my record to inspire some hope in people...you want to make people believe in magic again.”
From someone who constantly declared how relaxed he was, to someone who realized he wasn’t, to someone who actually is despite and within his traumas - these are the paths he has appeared to take, through his life and through his music. Flamagra
may not channel the raw angst of his previous works, but it still enacts that crucial moment of recognition. It’s not a reversal of normal Flying Lotus material. We’re still dealing with confusion exemplified as a messy but ultimately rewarding tracklist, fear exemplified as music that is just off enough that it could feel terrifying, depression exemplified as little quirks and late starts scattered like jacks and marbles. The difference is that, for once, he’s not trying to fight it all off. Youthful energy is one thing, and it obviously has its place in music, but Steven Ellison is wise enough to understand it’s about more than just the battle and the inferno - it’s about helping to heal those struggling with their own wounds, lighting the way for the future.