If Stephen Ellison has lived his life in the shadow of his illustrious family – his aunt and uncle were Alice and John Coltrane respectively – he’s shown little sign of letting the pressure get him down. Then again, if he smokes half as much weed as has been suggested it’s not entirely surprising.
This is Ellison’s third album under the Flying Lotus moniker, and taken as a trilogy they give a rough sketch of his life to date. 2006’s 1983 (the year he was born) was an interesting but unoriginal IDM beats effort; 2008’s Los Angeles was in thrall to the city of his birth and the innovative leftfield dance scene it was developing; 2010’s Cosmogramma, by the same token, is totally given over to where he wants to go – or where his mind already is – outer space.
Cosmogramma is easily Lotus’ most challenging release to date. Previously, he hasn’t made much of the Coltrane connection beyond his aunt’s cosmic guidance, but there are pockets of free-form jazz littered all over the record – cousin Ravi Coltrane even drops by to lay squealing sax on a couple of tracks. Parliament’s Mothership Connection is another obvious connection, but there is little in the way of traditional guitar-based funk here, although bassist Thundercat does weigh in with some Bootsy-like noodling on -Pickled!’ and -Dance of the Pseudo Nymph.’
There are more conventional influences too – the old school rap and blues guitar of -Satelllliiiiiteee’ and the neo-soul of -Do the Astral Plane’ – but they’re generally quite subtle. He flips the script for -A Cosmic Drama,’ splicing a soaring old Hollywood-style orchestral score with harp flourishes, but it sounds out of place and out of character – it’s beautiful, but it doesn’t quite fit, and the odd chip sound seems to be a token effort made to personalise the track. Even the feted Thom Yorke collaboration, the charmingly-titled -…And the World Laughs with You’ (a possible nod to Louis Armstrong), is a relatively dull affair rendered interesting only by Yorke’s distorted vocals.
The record isn’t so much made up of ‘songs’ as it is contrasting, often jarring sections – only consecutive numbers -Mmmhmm,’ -Do the Astral Plane’ and -Satelllliiiiiteee’ could really be seen as standalone pieces. Parts of the album are noticeably weaker than others, as outlined above, but the relatively fast pace and turnover of ideas represents ensures that Cosmogramma is never anything short of challenging.