Shabazz Palaces‘ new album Lese Majesty has wormed its way to the very core of me. It’s glorious, it’s freewheeling psychedelia, it’s a complete deconstruction of hip-hop forms and one of the best albums this year. Since my purple “loser edition” showed up a couple weeks ago, I’ve played it more than any album in months; even more so on my headphones at work, through the Sub Pop stream and then Spotify, where it’s streaming for free in whole: Lese Majesty on Spotify.
If you haven’t jumped on this wavelength, please have some #CAKE.
The second single, #CAKE, is the centerpiece of the album’s even-more-warped second half. An electro-jungle hip-hop riot erupts before leaping through a perfectly incongruous female soul vocal, taking flight with vintage Kraftwerk synth lasers as the tune ratchets up toward an unforgettable chant ending. It’s the type of multifaceted, twisty song that made their debut, Black Up, an instant left-of-center masterpiece.
This piece is really indicative of how Shabazz Palaces (duo of Tendai Maraire and Ishmael Butler) appear to hold no affiliation to any particular genre or sound. The middle vocal bridge slides into the beat-driven first half like a glacier, overtaking all momentum. As the tune gathers steam for its ending, the krautrock influence bursts through as the vocals craft a towering a list of places from Berlin to Neptune. It’s pointed, it’s weird, it’s confusing, and it’s fun as hell. A recent review of Lese Majesty mentioned that they’re not “the future of hiphop, but a step to the side” as if it was a bad thing. I couldn’t imagine a higher compliment for a duo wholly unconcerned with trends in this meme-driven music climate.
Also, I feel obligated to share this amazing photo of Butler. It’s one of my favorite artist images in years:
[buy Lese Majesty on 2LP vinyl, CD, or digitally via Sub Pop right HERE or Amazon or whatever]
When I purchased the 2lp edition of Destroyer‘s 2011 pop masterpiece Kaputt, I had no idea that the bonus track promised on side C would slowly become the languid circulatory system of the entire album. It swims in an embryonic well from which the other tracks drink, all held breath and deep plunge. It’s patient and fragile, and just may comprise twenty of my favorite minutes.
If you have only heard the standard tracklisting, press play now. It’s rare when something labelled “bonus” actually elevates the experience of listening to a great album. The Laziest River feels absolutely essential at this point, and while I sympathize with the probable intention of encouraging vinyl purchases, it seems unfair to leave everyone else with an unfinished story. So buy it if you can, but this song can be downloaded and amended to your playlist for a quick fix.
I had nearly forgotten: this is one of my favorite things ever.
Or at least the past year.
In late 2010 this clip from a July 23 concert in Los Angeles was posted and I realized how much of an incredible force of nature Miguel Atwood-Ferguson is. Flying Lotus fans know him as the guy providing the string arrangements in the legendary album Cosmogramma, while those more familiar with J Dilla probably smile at the thought of his work as headliner of the Timeless: Suite For Ma Dukes album, a sweeping orchestral take on the late James Yancey’s productions. This 13 minute alchemic beast weaves a stargazing intro from the former into one of the sparkling highlights of the latter’s final statement, the Ruff Draft EP, into an uplifting, hard charging masterpiece.
Truly an all star production, this band includes none other than Flying Lotus himself, Thundercat (best known for 2011’s Golden Age of the Apocalypse and making Cosmogramma jump like frogs in a dynamite pond), Rebekah Raff (another Flylo alum, she of the Alice Coltrane-worthy harp ethereality) and a full set of accomplished musicians I’ll list below.
Flying Lotus (laptop)
Miguel Atwood-Ferguson (violin)
Evan Francis (flute)
Dontae Winslow (trumpet)
Joey Dosik (alto sax)
Kamasi Washington (tenor sax)
Garrett Smith (trombone)
Rebekah Raff (harp)
Marcel Camargo (guitar)
Brandon Coleman (keys)
Stephen ‘Thundercat’ Bruner (bass)
Chris ‘Daddy’ Dave (drums)
Nikki Campbell (percussion)
I’m just hoping this hints, if not at Flying Lotus‘ next album (which will be announced at Coachella) perhaps a collaborative effort or even a full length release from this Ensemble itself.
Colin Stetson has created most physically thrilling music in years. The sheer power and intricacy of his saxophone work sets my mind racing with awe and excitement, and leaves me to rue the day I laid my own instrument to rest in its case for years. It’s taken me nearly a year to come to terms with what he’s unleashed and finally share my thoughts in written form.
Not only is this man setting the vanguard for new music and expanding perception of what an instrument can sound like, he’s unspooling aggressive hair-raising songcraft in an unprecedented, instantly recognizable timbre and taking everyone along for the ride. As intimidating as the notion of groundbreaking forms of woodwind communication seems, the music itself is open and inviting, something which can and will stop your mother in her tracks as she asks, just what is that? And then: how does he do it?
I’ll begin by going back to what I started writing about Stetson when his second full length released last spring:
As an incorrigible music junky, I’m always trying to peek over the horizon, searching for those incandescent bursts heralding a surprise. The elated rush of discovering and absorbing the truly new has no sensory equal. Looking over my musical history, it seems most of my favorite albums were of this stripe: works not only deserving my love, but challenging or entirely sidestepping my perception of interesting music – making an impact in the very nature of what I find pleasurable about listening. This blog was born of my desire to share that feeling as much as I could, and this post is as true to that aim as any I’ve ever written.
Stetson records in a tactile environment throbbing with tidal bass with details crackling like dry leaves against skin – I can feel its physical impact on my body. Two major factors drive this sensation: the performance itself and the unique recording process. Constellation MVP and newly christened engineer Efrim Menuck (of Godspeed You! Black Emperor) documented his sound in a fairly unorthodox manner. One listen through and anyone would feel suspicious about the claim that the entire album was captured via single takes with no overdubs; it’s an intricate, dense layer cake of ideas and epiphanies, and it’s always moving. The truth is this: using over 20 microphones positioned throughout the room, including contact mics on his throat and the instrument itself, every song was recorded in such a way that the multitude of angles could be folded and mixed together by engineer Ben Frost into the crystalline vision it is.
Stream the full thing. Now.
So that answers the question of how he does it and finally casts light on my few organized thoughts on the groundbreaking album. In the meantime he released the Those Who Didn’t Run EP and laid bare the sheer tidal force of his recording process with two 10 minute cuts demanding attention and awe in visceral fashion. Side A presents a rhythmic onslaught courtesy of his bass saxophone and Side B weaves an astounding counterpoint with an Alto, twin of the very horn resting less than a dozen feet from where I sit.
Each of these pieces sets me loose in an undulating labrynth of sound, bouncing off the walls riding a burst floodgate of energy straight toward the exit; the first full of low frequency mirth and massage, the second a stone hummingbird skipping across rapids and over waterfalls. They’re each an imaginary car chase down a pair of rabbit holes nobody knew existed a year ago and they set the stage for understanding the monumental accomplishment of the album they follow.
Stream this now, ok?
No amount of description or anecdote can prepare you for hearing this magic yourself. I could remark at the way it can bellow and sway like giant redwood trees in a hurricane, or blast images through my subconscious: ancient armadas cast into space, airborn mountains crashing to the surface, or pews and pipe organs and church spires crumbling in earthquakes. I could mention the explorations of Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp, Don Cherry and Marion Brown and, hell, Pharoah Sanders and how – only cumulatively – they could prepare you for this adventure. I could mention that no prior knowlege is required in the least to enjoy this untethered journey into the heights of creativity and musicianship. To hear this is to witness the vision of a man exerting himself with superhuman effort and poise to craft intensely visionary music with tectonic force.
In this first post of 2012 I proudly present my unabashedly belated yet wholeheartedly enthusiastic response to a slice of sound that has not only dominated my listening time for months but brightened my outlook for an important piece of the future of music.
Black Up is one of the best
hiphop albums I’ve heard all year (the year being 2011 but it doesn’t matter), possibly longer. I slept on this at first, honestly, because the name just seemed too hipster, too pitchfork, too much. I pictured a thousand chillwave and witch house bands lined up behind triangles and crosses, a sea of stoned faces, limpid whitewashed guitar and anonymous lazy beats. I pictured nothing interesting or worthy of my time, much less my money. I did not picture something this fucking good.
When most people think of a hiphop artist the vocals come first: style, cadence, and timbre to subject matter and storytelling. The sheer blunt force of the words themselves, inseparable from voice, embodies a delivery system of surface and substance. Crushing the underground binary of either transcending or subverting this natural order, Shabazz Palaces blow hair back with pointillistic dexterity and canny substance while folding the vocals into the dreamlike puzzle box instrumentation itself. Beatific slides like “It’s a feeling, it’s a feeling!” and “Clear some space out, so we can space out” are amplified by the very way they emerge through cloudbusting moments of clarity in the mix. The production is the most intricate and interesting I’ve heard in an impossible stretch of time. Huge and futuristic and swarming like Cannibal Ox (one of my all time favorites) but delicate and minimal in places, sometimes in the same song. Relentlessly kaleidoscopic on a track-to-track basis like Madvillain and equally playful. Taking each second as an opportunity for left turns, trap doors, and extraterrestrial launches like the best Flying Lotus material. I’m uncomfortable reducing this experience to references but they help paint a picture. Thrilling, gorgeous, head nodding and hypnotizing, worthy on its own as pure sound yet never subsuming the oft-poignant vocals, the meaning of Black Up is delivered fresh and phonetic, kinetic, poetic. I sink deeper, hearing more each time. Romantic, political, angry, meditative, militant, optimistic, futuristic, this blurs free-association and laser focus in the same moment, words and sounds in the same experience.
The duo of Ishmael Butler, of classic conscious/jazz-hop group Digable Planets (listen if you possess even a passing interest in A Tribe Called Quest, The Pharcyde, or Del La Soul; they’re probably better) and multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire (of whom I’ll be honest: I have no idea where he came from), is an alchemy I’ll forever thank Sub Pop (of all labels) for bringing to my ears.
My first favorite track.
Possibly the most direct distillation of the group’s ethos, with an outright nod to the original Digable Planets album in its ascendant coda.
The full album streaming free with visuals on youtube. Nice.
I should be so bold as to say that this is the equivalent of Disco Inferno (a longtime favorite of Optimistic Underground) for the hiphop galaxy. I don’t state this lightly. I also do not often insist so fully on a vinyl purchase but in this case I must spread the word on its inner beauty: the package does not resemble the semi-anonymous visual you’ve seen floating around the internet and the top of this post.
Before 2011, I had heard one Destroyer album, Your Blues. I recalled a very baroque yet earnest ballad named The Music Lovers, and nothing else. I thought of Dan Bejar (the sole permanent member) as part of an indie pop milieu I haven’t found interesting in years. Thankfully, Destroyer changed and I was wrong. Kaputt is a utopian vision of space-age late night electronic jazz pop.
First I’ll mention the atmosphere: as lush as a Ferrari made of diamonds, parked near a waterfall… bathed in the neon glow of some not-too-distant future. Every reverb-laden trumpet blast and bright synth line feels magnified, submerged in the liquid cool of Kaputt’s immaculate production. Some have mentioned the album conjuring memories of the 80s and I can’t disagree; I think it’s more to do with the painstaking detail of the recording than any genre the band nods toward. It was a time, after all, when ambitious pop albums were a slightly more common sighting.
If you’re familiar with Miles Davis‘ monumental Bitches Brew, you’ll have some idea of the tone and color the omnipresent trumpet takes on as it darts through the album from beginning to end. Muted and echoed at godlike levels, it’s an apparition as much as a driving force. Accenting and elevating the songs, highlighting the utopian feel, it’s a major aspect in cementing this sound in memory. Another is Bejar’s voice. With a deliver both earnest and cool, his affecting lyrics take impressionistic flights spiked with lump-in-throat moments which remind us: he’s not just our tour guide on this twilit adventure, he’s sharing the story of how we got here.
This chilled out, slickly psychedelic album is polished pop of the highest order. Crackling with an energy and intricacy unheard of in Bejar’s (former) circles, it unapologetically stands out with a crystaline picture of a time we’re not living in. For me, it’s the future. I’m sure this has something to do with my upbringing in the aforementioned decade; this is how the future was supposed to sound then! You may hear the past. Either is a fantasy wholly worth inhabiting.
If you’re like me, you may need more assurance that this isn’t the tired indie pop you may expect (or fear) it to be. So try this:
On second thought, everyone watch that. One of the most original, thrilling, and straight up funny music videos I’ve seen in a long time. 80’s girls with wet hair, desert mirages, and flying whales! Wow. That just made me like this even more. Anyway…
Flying Lotus has crafted a masterpiece. Cosmogramma is a state-of-emergency tidal wave of an album. This self-evident space opera is a rollicking behemoth, sweeping all imitators aside and redefining any and all notions of what this genre can be. This album is a clear step above everything else I’ve heard in 2010, and what I can only hope is a harbinger for the next decade of music evolution. Oh.. and it’s out today.
First things first: what genre are we even talking about here? Aside from the fact that the man (Mr. Steven Ellison, for your information) obliterated the confines of the instrumental hiphop tag two years ago with Los Angeles, a whole generation of artists have been exploding the scene and crossing borders between any and every breed of electronic music for a while now. They’ve erased notions of what it means to be techno, dubstep, funk, wonky or electro, yet the cream of the crop still seemed to rise to one level. This plateau has finally been passed. The rocket has launched. After experiencing this album, the only option is to survey from this new perch in the stars, witnessing the limitless potential this can of wormholes has unleashed. By the final crescendo, my heart is filled with boundless optimism, a bright hot light urging me to think more, do more, be a better person. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss: Oh, the places we’ll go!
What places, indeed. Ping ponging through the galaxy in true astral traveller fashion, the piece (and it is a singular piece) rarely rides an idea longer than it takes to realize its brilliance. Every segment builds towards a transcendent rhythm which manages to curveball into something unexpected, subversive; it’s a cool breeze on the face at regular intervals, injecting narcotic bliss without the blunted slide into glazed-over hypnosis. Ellison’s palette has expanded in every sense of the word, laying out a breathtaking array of sounds which cast his previous work in a positively monochromatic light. There’s never an instance where a phrase feels reused or a nerve struck twice. Grabbing the faint narrative thread dangling in the opener and following it all the way through is the only way to avoid being completely lost and taken by surprise when finale Galaxy In Janaki goes supernova. Of course, as with anything this epic in scope, the journey is not traveled alone. Cosmogramma is bursting at the edges of perception with an orchestra pit’s worth of string and brass. The soul melting (and appropriately Alice-esque) harp of Rebekah Raff and coiled chaos of Ravi Coltrane‘s tenor sax conjure several standout moments throughout the album, while the true MVP may just be Thundercat and his hyperactive, acrobatic bass work. The man (real name Steve Bruner) splices a beating heart of funk and a set of nimble hips into every bit he touches, imbuing each head nod with a tactile earthiness. We’ve also got Dorian Concept riding a subtle electro wave through the moody Satelllliiiiiiiteee and a now-requisite Laura Darlington (aka Mrs. Daedelus) floating over a particularly breathtaking vista. Of course, the biggest news of all (at least to the majority of folks outside of the devoted circle around this scene) is Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s hotly anticipated cameo on the Oldboy referencing title …And The World Laughs With You. Thankfully it’s not only as unobtrusive, but just as thoughtfully woven into the fabric of the material as any Dolly or Gonjasufi vocal before it. So rest assured, weary souls: the big bad rock star guy isn’t ruining your favorite producer’s new album, he’s helping make it the wildly joyous experience it is.
Laugh, and the world laughs with you.
A comparison of the cover art of Los Angeles with this could make easy shorthand for the growth and change on display: the contrast between the former’s stark surreal-industrial black forms spilled into a harsh white expanse and Cosmogramma‘s hand drawn ink starburst on graying papyrus points towards a move away from futuristic aural cityscapes into something akin to an ancient tree with deep roots in the avant jazz composition and instrumentation of Ellison’s forebears, its heights reaching deep into space. It’s no coincidence that the visual accompaniment blends Egyptian mythology and science fiction. The album’s flesh and blood is inseparable from its ultra modern trajectory. It’s soul becomes the timeless concept of growth, evolution, leaping into the next epoch. An adventure, a paradigm shift, a mindfuck. In other words, I’m fully confident in considering this album one of the most new things I’ve ever heard. Despite owing a spiritual debt to many, this music sounds like nothing and no one else out there.
My hope is that everyone takes to this new ride as enthusiastically as I have. It’s only fitting that the guy who led us out of the confusion in J Dilla‘s wake would light a path to his secret launch pad, inviting everyone to take a little journey. It’s beyond satisfying to know that the game change at hand feels like that moment a decade ago when The Avalanches dropped a little bomb named Since I Left You, shattering the dimensions of sample-based music – this time an album is blurring any distinction between stoned beat-centric movements and deeply mind altering jazz typified by Alice and John Coltrane. It lives and breathes in that space between the classic and the cutting edge, between technology and faith, between the tangible evidence and pure belief. After the hair-raising emotional anchor Table Tennis – the perfect album closer in any other case – Ellison taps into some hidden reserve and burns the ending minutes off in a white hot blast aiming toward further dimensions to be explored. It’s a spaceship hitting warp drive into infinity, that gorgeous singularity amidst the starscape, just before the credits of some favorite sci-fi classic.
To Be Continued…
[buy it from bleep, where I did!]
Last weekend I had the pleasure to see Mr. Steven Ellison, aka Flying Lotus, perform twice in the same day. The first event was a live collaboration with Dr. Strangeloop for the Ann Arbor Film Festival, scoring the 1962 avant garde animated film Heaven and Earth Magic as it played in the Michigan Theater. Truly one of the strangest media experiences of my life, the film itself is an utter mind fuck – stark black and white 19th century cutout images swirling, grinding, and making Dali proud – while the accompanying score blew the doors off my perception of what Flying Lotus is capable of. This material was a straight up experimental drone symphony and shared few commonalities with the ostensibly beat-centric music the man is known for. Of course, I gave myself to it wholeheartedly and was spit out the other end with wild eyes and an expanded level of respect and admiration. And some dizziness.
A still from Heaven and Earth Magic.
Then, we hit the Blind Pig and became truly and completely blown away. We were the faithful masses and he was our prophet. Everyone around me surrendered to the tunes; even the most reserved students were compelled to move at least a bit. The live set eclipsed anything I came prepared for, and set the bar for live electronic acts at least a few notches higher than I’d perceived possible. Here’s a glimpse of him weaving Idioteque, one of Radiohead‘s towering productions, into the maelstrom:
Bows were born after the demise of brilliant post-rock pioneers Long Fin Killie, by lead guitarist and singer Luke Sutherland. A more atmosphere- and beat-driven, nominally trip-hop associated group than its predecessor, Bows bloomed into something equally adventurous and fulfilling as the acclaimed first band. On this album, they flew even higher.
With a foundation in the bleeding edge of UK PostRock, Sutherland and company’s oceanic swells bleed into entirely new territories, amplifying the latent dub tendencies of the former scene while skipping right over the forefront of then-popular Bristol trip-hop sounds into a starbursting heaven of cascading orchestral waterfalls and breathy dreampop vocals courtesy of chanteuse Signe Hoirup Wille-Jorgensen and Sutherland himself. The enigmatic low end throb provides a bedrock for the torrent of acid-bent melodic workouts embedded with a stream of sub-consciousness lyrics and oracular percussion.
Imagine your favorite deep 90’s Bristol album draped in the gauzy atmosphere of A.R. Kane or Cocteau Twins and shot through with terrifying elation and existential anomie. This is light years beyond that image. Leaning away from the club floor and into the fevered minds of blissed out dreamers, it’s the pinnacle of its kind. Perhaps the only one.