Because Steven Ellison (Flying Lotus) is a producer with a deep listener’s ears, it only makes sense that last year’s Flamagra, and an album that featured guest vocalists ranging from Anderson Paak, George Clinton, and Solange, would ultimately find an instrumental-only release. And one listen to this version, with any words reduced to incidental wisps, shows off a record that has certainly gained more than it lost when the vocal tracks got zapped.
Here’s a musician who lapped up re-contextualized funk and hip-hop as instrumental psychedelic experience during his time interning with Stones Throw, where he paid close attention to Madlib and J Dilla. While there are a few similarities between Lotus and them, Ellison has always been lusher, more symphonic, less sample-reliant. He tends instead toward immersion in sunny LA psychedelic grooves, and hints at a past that never was, due to the radical convergence of his fusion influences with plush, pulse-informed production.
Here, he deploys contemporary LA-based sound sculptors such as Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, who adds strings to a number of tracks. Yet, like 2014’s You’re Dead, Herbie Hancock appears too. With musicians from a variety of generations of soul, funk, and fusion, and younger players who worship them, such as Thundercat, Flamagra (Instrumentals) is a collection of often skittering but sometimes tranquil keyboard-driven mini-symphonies. And throughout 27 tracks, this record gets around.
Without even having heard the vocal version, it’s clear “Burning Down the House” was made for George Clinton, what with its electronic handclaps ala “Flashlight”, as well as synth jabs that at least hint at Bernie Worrell. Yet, the song sounds nothing like P-Funk. It’s darker and more slippery, and without Clinton’s hoarse whisper, it sounds like the product of a fever dream. Take rapper Tierra Whack out of “Yellow Belly”, and at first seems as if a major chunk of the tune’s melodic framework is erased. Yet, now the track’s creepy bass notes drive the tune forward as it lurks in its darkness.
Remove Paak’s rapid-fire rap from “More”, and the psychedelic swirls of keyboard at the chorus crawl out of the ooze to draw in energy and tension, a distorted bassline nodding approval. Listening to this without vocals doesn’t rob the already instrumental-only tracks of their grace either. “Say Something”, with its minute and 16 seconds of acoustic piano and eerie strings, is still a surprise, sounding like a track snagged from a Pascal Comelade record. “Remind U” builds from a solitary keyboard into sonata sung only by synths before settling back down again, all in less than three minutes.
And then there’s “Land of Honey”. Originally a dirge-paced feature for Solange’s husky insinuations, it now slinks along, every minimal keyboard droplet taking on significance formerly buried under the vocals. Flamagra is a beautiful record, buoyed by its guests. Yet, peel the vocals away, and it becomes all the more coherent. In other words, the guest vocals didn’t harm a thing, but Ellison’s sci-fi funk never need play background to anybody. Lotus has reached some mighty highs in his career, and what’s here never tops anything on, say, Cosmogramma. But heard on its own, basking in its vocal-free certainty, Flamagra (instrumentals) makes conspicuous variety feel coherent and ordered.