When it comes to electronica music, I’ve said before and I’ll say again that I don’t know much. I tend to prefer my songs with guitar, or at the very least a chorus that attempts to get itself stuck in my head. Ask me to tell you about the difference between house and dubstep and IDM and I’ll give you just about the blankest stare you can possibly get. Yet a good electronica album, for me, is hard to find, and there are occasionally tricks certain artists can use to attract my attention. Girl Talk, what with his myriad of samples that pulls from so many familiar and classic tracks, is easiest on my ears because I know what I’m hearing. Electronica artists that are also able to generate much hype amid their peers or other artists I boldly respect can catch my eye as well. Then there’s the easy way – get some artists I love to do some guest work on at least one track, which will basically guarantee that I hear at least that single song. This is how Flying Lotus snagged me, both on the recommendation of my personal hero, Thom Yorke of Radiohead, but also through his active participation, lending guest vocals to the song “…And the World Laughs With You,” which also earned him hype in all the right circles. Thom also had Flying Lotus open up for his “solo” band Atoms for Peace on their recent short tour earlier this month, where I happened to attend one of the Chicago dates. Honestly, when I walked into the venue I thought Flying Lotus had already finished and they were playing your standard between-set DJ fodder while waiting for Atoms for Peace to start. That is, until I noticed the one guy on stage with his laptop, who eventually grabbed a microphone and said, “Thanks Chicago!”. So, against my better judgment, I’m all for giving the new Flying Lotus album “Cosmogramma,” a quick try and review before it comes out on Tuesday.
Given how little I know about both electronica and any Flying Lotus material prior to “Cosmogramma,” I’m surprised that the album impressed me as much as it did. I suppose that like any musical form you’re not acquainted with, if you hear something special or unique in it, you’re more inclined to understand how it might be viewed as brilliant. In this case, I’m highly impressed with how FlyLo is able to use a multitude of instruments, everything from the harp to acoustic guitar to saxophone and just about every percussive instrument in existence (ping pong balls?), melded around his computer-generated melodies. There are seemingly impromptu jazz breaks, string sections, bass-heavy grooves, and fanciful dream sequences all packed into this album, and almost all of them work towards the space opera concept the record is supposedly centered around. I can tell you this much – from the opening beats of “Clock Catcher” through the ethereal “Satelllliiiiiteee”, this is a damn near perfect album. I loved every second of that first half, which includes exceptional highlights such as the Thom Yorke-guesting “…And the World Laughs With You” and the funky “Do the Astral Plane”. Things get a little sketchy after that, what with “Germain Haircut” and “Recoiled” both being a little listless and lacking, but the electro blips and symphony into soft palate harp combination on “Drips/Auntie’s Harp” isn’t half bad, and I’m effortlessly charmed by “Table Tennis”.
So I guess you can mark down that as somebody who doesn’t consider himself an expert nor even a general fan of electronica has found lots to like about Flying Lotus’ “Cosmogramma”. The main reason why, I’ll argue, is that there’s so much more to this material than your average electronica artist puts in. It feels less like a record based around certain beats and grooves and more like an instrumental artistic experiment that just so happens to feature a fair amount of electronica. Rare is the record so carefully composed and layered as this one, and given the difficulty of reproducing this live on your own with a laptop, it’s no wonder I didn’t give much heed to FlyLo’s pre-Atoms for Peace performance. This guy is clearly brilliant, on the level that somebody like Aphex Twin is brilliant (hint: this is a high compliment). Yes, this is the best flat-out electronica album I’ve heard so far this year (of note, electro-pop, ala LCD Soundsystem, doesn’t fall into the category just described). You will probably see me mention it again at the end of the year among my favorites. Well played, Flying Lotus. You suck me in with a Thom Yorke recommendation and guest vocal, and have me leaving with high praise all around. This album may not push me into a new-found love of electronica, but it does generate enough good will to make me more open to releases similar to this in the future. Consider that a best-case scenario. I hope you’ll give “Cosmogramma” a try, as I did, and I hope you’ll also not regret it, as I did.