Live review: A weekend of Flying Lotus at the Echoplex
Sometimes, there is that moment. When time doesn’t stop but instead splinters into a dozen discrete and unlocked avenues, the realm of infinite options and unlimited potential. When the Earth’s axis clicks, the winds blow serenely rather than from Santa Ana, and “the world laughs with you.”
The latter is the name of the centerpiece track on “Cosmogramma,” the new Flying Lotus record, in which Thom Yorke’s celestial howl burrows out from beneath a bedrock of humble-mumble bass and wood-fire-warm fuzz and is reconfigured into a new, unidentified element.
Last week was Flying Lotus’ moment, and his two-night stand at the Echoplex over the weekend was equal parts celebration and coronation. This sentiment has been simmering for a while, with Lotus being at the vanguard of the influential Low End Theory club. Lotus, a.k.a. Steven Ellison: 26 years old and Winnetka-raised, weaned on Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, kin of the cosmic Coltrane family, and baptized via IDM, drum and bass, video game funk, and dense California chronic.
Galvanized by boom-box beat battles at Kutmah’s Sketchbook nights at Little Temple, Lotus’ official debut was 2006’s “1983,” a record that advanced his initial ideas (but little more) and garnered him enough heat to make the leap to Warp, the seminal English electronic label and spiritual home of his idol, Aphex Twin. 2008’s “Los Angeles” staked a claim for the Low End Theory as one of the world’s hubs of the post-boom-bap avant garde. Unbound by hip-hop orthodoxy and even the need for an MC, Lotus built beats that could soar like lost carnival balloons and hit with the force of a thousand sideshow strongmen. Hailed as a triumph, the record’s esteem grew in its aftermath, as Low End brethren such as Gaslamp Killer, Samiyam, Nosaj Thing and Free the Robots amassed national acclaim. Across the Atlantic, where ears were already intuitively inclined toward Lotus’ synthesis of the organic and electronic, his stature increased.
Then came “Cosmogramma,” a sprawling collage of a record, grafting foreign elements (hip-hop, dubstep, free jazz, house, IDM, “Amnesiac”-era Radiohead, afro-futurism), found sounds (including his dying mother’s hospital machines and ping-pong balls) and live instrumentation (a harpist, Ravi Coltrane on tenor sax, funk overlord Thundercat on bass).
Its title loosely translates to map of the universe, and it sounds like it: a weird mess of interstellar dust and hard matter, suspended in the sky, subject to a constant drift and outrageous amounts of light. Add all that to a Thom Yorke guest spot and you can imagine the result: a bandwagon gone berserk, with everyone from the Wall Street Journal, NPR, Pitchfork and the Guardian taking note of the LA Beat scene and its most prominent emissary.
So the question last weekend was, how do you make “Cosmogramma’s” sonic, synthesized breadth cohere in a live setting? The answer was two nights, with Friday’s set showcasing Ellison’s DJ abilities and Saturday featuring the debut of his live band. Both were impossibly sold out, with Craigslist clotted with offers of cash and narcotic trade, and people waiting outside as though Thom Yorke himself was going to make a cameo appearance while riding a black swan.
With a slate of openers composed of his Low End/Brainfeeder brethren (Samiyam, Ras G, Dr. Strangeloop, Teebs), the Echoplex convulsed with bass on Friday, with Ellison hewing to the DJ set he’s been globe-trotting around for the last few months. Remixes of Lil Wayne, Radiohead and his own material smacked skulls and left the audience dizzy, delighted and trying to figure out how to dance. Creating dance music for the head-nod crowd, the crowd attempted to decipher the cryptic patterns filled with a restless energy that opts for power and velocity over in-the-pocket groove. Which is to say, you probably can’t dance to this music, but you can do everything else.
Saturday featured opening sets from Matthewdavid, Gaslamp Killer, Gonjasufi, and Ravi Coltrane, and each showcased his singular style. Among the four of them, enough genres were touched upon to send a music ethnographer back to the books, from jazz to psych-rock, to ambient to carnival music, to Nigerian funk to straight-up filth-encrusted beats.
And along came Lotus to further turn the evening unclassifiable.
Armed with a live band, including guitarists, a harpist, Coltrane on sax, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson on violin, vocalists, and Ellison alternating between his laptop and the whirling gesticulations of conductor, the evening shined a spotlight on the record’s versatility.
Closer to fusion jazz than hip-hop, the evening channeled the spirit of “Bitches Brew-era” Miles Davis and “Hot Rats”-era Zappa, a synthesis of the strange and the sublime. At times, the jams lapsed into watery indulgence, a natural byproduct of ambition, freedom and an aversion to boundary.
But for its occasional wandering, Lotus made up for it with his stereoscopic vision, innate ear and generosity. From his mission to help expose his gifted colleagues to the city and the world, to his desire to contain as much as possible within temporal and spatial constraints, Ellison is attempting to distill the entire universe into a digestible package. Though this is impossible, he comes as close as anyone has come in a long time. Last week was Flying Lotus’ moment, but last weekend, he revealed that the future might be his too.
-- Jeff Weiss
Photo: Flying Lotus. Credit: Henry Choi
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