Burning Down the House: Flying Lotus’s “Flamagra” Summons a Fire It Won’t Put Out

August 24, 2019   •   By Max Suechting

THE FIRST SOUND on Flamagra, the ambitious new record from Los Angeles–based musician Flying Lotus — a.k.a. producer, DJ, filmmaker, and video artist Steven Ellison — is the delicate, percussive shivering of fire. Ellison’s husky voice emerges as if at a distance, through a cloud of smoky reverb, intoning: “The time of heroes has come again.” And then, suddenly, we’re off, the licking flames instantly transmogrified into a kind of chrome overture, a dream-cruiser slicing through the atmosphere at 30,000 feet, funk engine running smoothly and sunlight reflecting brilliantly off its rounded edges as clouds of strings and synthesizers swirl around its carapace.

Album openings are a particular strength of Ellison’s: witness the abominable drone of 2014’s You’re Dead!, or the psychedelic laser field which ignites 2010’s Cosmogramma. But where these statements are bold and demanding, Flamagra’s opening is gentle, an invocation of or invitation to the listener. Given that the song is titled “Heroes,” it is easy to hear this beginning as both warning and promise to its audience: “We are now joined together again / In the space that you’ve created / The world has changed / And so have you.” Halfway through the album, the filmmaker David Lynch delivers his own (thoroughly Lynchian) monologue, narrating an eerie parable over what could be mistaken for a Morton Feldman composition. If Ellison’s intro is a greeting, Lynch’s interlude is a warning: “Fire is coming; fire is coming; fire is coming; fire is coming...” he intones, as 808s rise up to finally swallow his words.

The fire in question is part reality, part fiction, and part symbol. Inspired by the imagery of the Tubbs Fire that haunted the northern half of Los Angeles in 2018, Flamagra imagines an undying flame permanently inhabiting the city. Like Ellison’s previous records, the organizing theme is, unsurprisingly, contained in the title: a word of Ellison’s own invention which describes a fire spirit, an eternal elemental force that humans must necessarily come to converse with and understand. At the beginning of the record, fire is a threat; on “Burning Down the House,” the legendary George Clinton laments its violence: “Burning down the house / Call your firemen / They'll all be choking from all the smoke / The fire won't stop burning.” But if eternal fire sounds like a destructive force, Ellison would like you to see that it might also be a creative one, offering newness even in its destruction. To that end, Ellison also plays the role of shepherd (the wordless, drifting “Andromeda”), seducer (“FF4”’s silken piano and lightly fractured drums), interrogator (clavinet chords layered with falsetto disharmony on “Find Your Own Way Home”), and purifier (the brief but hair-raisingly gorgeous “Thank U Malcolm,” Ellison’s prayer for the late Mac Miller). Thus fire comes to stand, in Ellison’s cosmology, for a kind of life-in-death: the liveliness of the flame brings death even as it raises the possibility of a life-world beyond our own.

Imagining such a blaze, one can’t help but be reminded of the fires which plague Bellona, the fictional setting of Samuel R. Delany’s epic Dhalgren. Bellona is a disaster zone divorced from linear causality and suffused with a forceful, erotic violence, its urban surreality constantly unspooling, multiplying, and rewinding. Like the flames licking Ellison’s imaginary Los Angeles, Delany’s fires are both a literal burning and a spectral presence, visible from a distance but never quite touching the novel’s action, a texture of chaotic uncertainty lent to the city itself. In both cases, the fires don’t exactly stop, but rather seem to happen and un-happen at will, in ways that cannot be predicted or repeated. In this sense, they are — to borrow a line from Flamagra collaborator Ishmael Butler — “actually virtual,” always about to happen or already having happened but never transpiring in the present. For Delany and Ellison, fire is an element beyond the ken of humans; as such it functions as a relentless incitement to reverie, opening up the possibility of a relationship to the world beyond empirical thought. Both men make use of fire as an imaginative engine, capable of producing speculation and wonder as easily as horror and confusion to pose the same essential question: how do you live through the apocalypse?

Ellison offers one prospective answer to this riddle when he says, in an interview with Vulture, “[I] want to make people believe in magic again.” Magic, in this statement and in Ellison’s previous works, can be taken simply as anything beyond the ordinary, and there is plenty of that in the fragmented melodies, fractal drum loops, and tunneling bass lines which populate Flamagra’s burning city. Magic, such as it is, can be found in what the Caribbean writer Édouard Glissant refers to as “all the threatened and delicious things”: the flourishes and details, the unresolved odd-meter sections, the shimmering harps and falsettos and syncopations and cartoon sound effects. Where Ellison’s early music was delightfully raw, experimental in the truest sense, these details make Flamagra feel baroque and intricate, as if a sorcerer had set himself a series of arcane tests to master. The result is an album which leans into the strange and unusual with both confidence and pleasure; the magical part is that it makes the listener feel those things too.

Not that this is a new strategy for Ellison. Flamagra’s pyromagick is clearly aligned with the producer’s longstanding interest in the elemental composition of the universe. The term “cosmogramma” is another of his invented terms, drawn from a mishearing of one of Alice Coltrane’s lectures and referring to an imaginary map of heaven and hell. (Coltrane was his great-aunt.) You’re Dead! imagined a journey through the world beyond this one, a realm to which Ellison seems uniquely attuned among his peers. Kuso, the independent film Ellison wrote, directed, and produced, evinces a fascination with the malleability and fungibility of the human body that would turn even William S. Burroughs’s stomach. What emerges from considering these projects as an integrated whole is a notion of music as both an expressive and a conceptual tool — a way of thinking or theorizing aloud about the order of things and the nature of the world. In that sense, rather than saying that Flamagra is “about” fire, it would be more accurate to say that it makes use of the concept of fire to tackle the shape and scope of human life on planet Earth, and the possibilities for moving beyond our current understanding of it.

Fire is a particularly useful tool for Ellison in this quest because of the centrality of heat — the lifeless, still, weighted heat that settles over inland Los Angeles for weeks in the summer — to Ellison’s cosmology. It’s a heat like vice grips or a car compactor, heat that dries your lungs when you inhale and burns your eyes when you blink. It’s this species of heat that inaugurated Ellison’s career, the 2005 demo EP July Heat, a mixtape now only available in the darker corners of YouTube, and which floats over the swimming pool sequence in Until the Quiet Comes: the Kahlil Joseph–directed 2012 short film accompanying Ellison’s album of the same name. On both records, heat is sometimes explicit subject matter and sometimes simple provocation: heat as experience, heat as sensation, heat as problem, heat as burden. Heat so intolerable and inescapable that it all but requires an escape into wonder.

Those moments of escape are present on Flamagra as well, often coinciding with the injections of delicious weirdness delivered by Ellison’s many collaborators and guests. Aside from the aforementioned appearances by Lynch and Clinton, a wonderfully subversive appearance by Tierra Whack (“Yellow Belly”) pairs see-sawing profanity with mosaical sonic detail. The Ishmael Butler of Shabazz Palaces speaks what could be mistaken for an incantation over a 12/8 groove on “Actually Virtual”; near the end of the album, the mournful “Land of Honey” is graced by the ethereal, haunting vocals of Solange. On “More” and “Black Balloons Reprise,” Flamagra’s most accessible (and old-fashioned) tracks, the MCs Anderson .Paak and Denzel Curry deliver dense but balletic verses: Curry describes the origin of the universe while .Paak brilliantly interpolates Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s 1992 classic “T.R.O.Y. (They Reminisce Over You).” The synthesis of all these colliding aesthetics in so many impossibly detailed moments produces, as in Ellison’s previous work, a record full of unexpected edges and surprising — if not downright disorienting — juxtapositions. Though the album has no single clear generic affiliation, using the artifice of genre against itself is one of Ellison’s oldest tricks, and he clearly relishes the chance to appropriate and reconfigure the musical languages of jazz or hip-hop or electronic music, turning them in on themselves in a spirit of ironic play. In a lesser artist’s hands, the result might sound disorganized and unfocused — or, worse, arch and parodic — but in Ellison’s it feels more like a kind of amorphous, plasmatic joy, an enthusiastic curiosity tempered occasionally by melancholy but unrestrained in its expression. It is intoxicating.

But Flamagra is also to some extent a different beast than FlyLo’s previous projects, most notably in a heightened emphasis on narrative. If You’re Dead! and Cosmogramma used story as a pretext for sonic experimentation, then on Flamagra Ellison reverses course, telling his story almost exclusively through sound: weaving together chord stabs on “Capillaries,” the doodling clavinet of “Takashi,” and the gently smoldering electric guitar of “Andromeda,” Ellison considers fire in every dimension and from every angle. And while the record features a large number of vocalists (including Ellison, who states his thesis himself all but explicitly on the intro and outro), their contributions to the album’s account are elliptical, made through inference and suggestion rather than straightforward narration. The constellation of imagery, ideas, and pronouns flung out by Whack, Clinton, Curry, Butler, et al, sketches a fiery dreamscape more by proximity and association than by any coherent linear narrative. The effect is something like what Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas might have been if Frank Herbert had written it — or conversely, if Hunter S. Thompson had written Dune. Flamagra is epic in scale but still deeply suggestible, prone to sudden changes of tone and direction but nevertheless almost pathologically committed to its central purpose: Fire is coming; fire is coming; fire is coming …

To the extent that Ellison plays this implied refrain against his ever-proliferating aesthetic polyvocality, his work is imbued with a delightful indecipherability, a fugitive, magical form of play that Fred Moten would call “in the break,” or Fredric Jameson might describe as “utopic.” The crucial thing to say about Ellison’s music in general, and Flamagra specifically, is that it relentlessly generates speculation, opening a place into which the listener’s imagination can escape and roam, free of the shackles of reality, pleasantly defamiliarized but not entirely untethered. The genius of Cosmogramma was to project this practice of speculative contemplation through New Age and sci-fi aesthetics; You’re Dead! fused it with the technical complexity of jazz fusion and heavy metal. Flamagra is a slower album than both, but only because it builds on their advancements rather than repeating them. In the midst of Ellison’s whirlwind fusions — of aesthetics and techniques, acoustic and electronic, abstract and concrete — the music still breathes, excited but still patient, almost meditative. There can be no fire without air.


Max Suechting is a doctoral candidate in Stanford University’s Program in Modern Thought & Literature and a Teaching Fellow at Stanford’s Center for Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity.