Experimental electronic producer Steven Ellison, better known by his stage name Flying Lotus (or his pitch-shifted alter-ego Captain Murphy) took a five year break between albums after the release of his acclaimed “You’re Dead!” in 2014. He has remained busy, however, scoring music for animes and directing his recent feature film “Kuso,” a surreal series of vignettes set in the apocalyptic aftermath of a huge Los Angeles earthquake.
During this time, Ellison, a Los Angeles native, also experienced a more tangible apocalypse during the California fires of 2017 and 2018, two of the most destructive wildfire seasons on record. His latest album, “Flamagra,” centers around that catastrophic elemental force. In an interview with Vulture, Ellison called his album “the result of seeing L.A. on fire so many times, literally and metaphorically.”
With tracks like “Hot Oct.” and “Burning Down the House,” Ellison weaves in this central theme. He reflects, however, not only on the detrimental and uncontrollable aspects of fire, but also on its cleansing nature and the endurance of an eternal flame.
The opening track “Heroes” emerges with the crackling sound of a campfire, beneath an ominous spoken-word bit: “We are now joined together again in the space that you've created. The world has changed and so have you. You're different now.” In a flash, it switches from ambient noise into a signature Flying Lotus blend of psychedelic hip-hop and tactile electronic music.
Ellison’s friend and longtime collaborator Stephen Bruner, known for his own musical output under the name Thundercat, bolsters the album’s avant-garde textures with an always-funky bassline. Bruner receives a credited vocal feature on “The Climb” but his bass work can be heard all throughout the project, cutting through on tracks like “Post Requisite” and “Inside Your Home.”
Ranging from the absurd and gloomy “Debbie is Depressed” to the upbeat, video game-esque “Takashi,” the entire record takes the form of a psychedelic odyssey, rushing through a mish-mash of stimulating styles. But within this dense structure of solo material, Ellison also frames an impressive set of collaborative tracks, which provide for some of album’s strongest moments.
Each contribution from an outside artist is anything but halfhearted. The tracks meld perfectly with Ellison’s chaotic vision. These high-profile features feel as if the individual artists are carving out a home within the fantastical Flying Lotus universe.
Rapper Tierra Whack contributes a couple verses on the off-kilter “Yellow Belly.” The afrofuturist hip-hop legend Ishmael Butler pops up on the mechanized “Actually Virtual.” Anderson .Paak infuses an infectious danceability into the song “More,” the music video of which was directed by iconic Japanese animator Shinichiro Watanabe, another one of Ellison’s close collaborators.
Perhaps the most unlikely guest feature comes in the form of a spoken word narrative from the esoteric film director David Lynch on the track “Fire is Coming.” In this moment the album moves closest to its real-life inspiration.
Overtop a discordant instrumental, Lynch tells the story of an approaching fire as it startles and interrupts the life of an unnamed, middle class family. At first its unsettling, but the track soon morphs into a futuristic dance party with its closing hook: “Fire burning in the street / Everybody move your feet.”
Ellison cannot dwell on the darkness for too long. Eventually his unbound creative spirit lights up his surroundings. With an energy similar to the album’s fiery theme, the music on “Flamagra” moves in beautiful, unsuspecting directions.
Instead of destruction, the hour-long record ends with a cryptic and mystical sense of hope: “The dreams will carry you beyond the flame. We embrace the beauty of the infinite. But the fire, the fire never dies”