It’s time again to turn the music down and put on your art-critic monocles and top hats. Yes, today is the day we judge 2010 releases strictly on their visual packaging aesthetics as opposed to their auditory aptitude. It’s also a way to highlight the ‘other’ artists who have created the artwork and often don’t get the credit besides a sub-par blurb in the liner notes. 2010 was filed with beautiful artwork and it has been a struggle to dwindle them down to 5, but alas, my favorites are to be found below. Just like last year, I’m looking at the entire package; composition, balance, tone, meaning and originality. Use of text is not necessary as we saw last year, but when it is used, it must compliment the piece as a whole. I don’t claim to be an expert, but when looking back through this year’s album artwork, here are the ones that caught my eye.
In the vast, deep of night, we peer into the cosmos searching for answers to all of life’s questions. For innumerable years, humans have gazed to the stars. Some receive answers. For producer and beat-maker Steven Ellison, (AKA Flying Lotus) rooting deep in the earth, peering high into the sky, and becoming one with the universe is the modus operandi on his latest full length album Cosmogramma. Those unfamiliar with FlyLo, may have unwittingly heard some of his first work as a beat-maker during Adult Swim’s commercial changeovers. These ambiguous and quick bass-heavy sketches built a massive fan base for which Ellison would leap from his rather innocuous 2006 debut full length 1983 and find great critical acclaim in his Warp debut, 2008’s Los Angeles.
On his latest, his influence is taken mostly from his personal relation to his great-aunt, Alice Coltrane, from whom the title of the record is taken. The late Alice Coltrane was a jazz musician in her own right in addition to being known as the wife of Saxophone legend John Coltrane. Flying Lotus uses these family bred jazz influences in very subtle ways in his beat-making scenarios while combining sublime live instrumentation from a global laundry list of talented musicians to create a soundtrack which is simply out of this world. If Los Angeles was his ‘Dr. Strangelove’, Cosmogramma is his ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’.
From the first bass hits of ‘Clock Catcher’ the listener is shot into the atmosphere with the addition of Rebekah Raff on harp. The playfulness between the smooth, tender harp and the sharp, rigid bass is just a taste of what FlyLo does best. His production style has evolved over the past few years, but creating dense, layered tracks is becoming second-nature. From here into the bass heavy, jazz improv ‘Pickled’ with former Suicidal Tendencies bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruno putting down intricate bass lines. ‘Intro//A Cosmic Drama’ is the record’s first influence of vocals, with Niki Randa providing the choir-like voice over a beautiful string arrangement from the very talented Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. The vocals are subtle, but are very effective in giving the overall tone of the track a celestial sense.
Most casual listeners may have heard the single ‘…And The World Laughs With You’, no doubt a highlight for many. With the addition of Thom Yorke’s vocals, FlyLo creates an Eraser –esque vibe, though it’s short-lived and doesn’t settle on the vocals in a manner of Yorke’s 2006 release. Similarly, Ellison never dwells too long on any particular thought process. The tracks on the album average just under 2.5 minutes, but there’s no lack in substance throughout. The list of collaborators continues with ‘Arkestry’ utilizing relative Ravi Coltrane on sax, giving the record its first true jazz sensibility, and no doubt an ode to his Aunt and his family’s jazz lineage. Jumping ahead to ‘Satelllliiiiiiiteee’, which is a funky groove and by ‘Recoiled’ a dense, hard hitting track, it’s obvious that FlyLo has mastered his craft and created his strongest release to date by far.
As a listener it is important to not pass judgment after first listen. It’s the kind of record that will not immediately hit you due the subtly and denseness of the layers, but repeated listens are well worth the effort. The record as a whole flows like a single track, much in the same manner of Prefuse 73’s ‘Everything She Touched Turned Ampexian’, though the record feels to end in a more abrupt manner that I would have expected. Overall, however, it is still one of the best, far-reaching musical journeys of the year. Expect much more notoriety and critical acclaim in the future for Flying Lotus if he continues to produce in the same manner, focusing not only on the beats, but the composition of instrumentation as well.