Midnight movies and anime have long played a crucial role in Flying Lotus’ aesthetic universe. Now, between the recently established film division of his Brainfeeder label, numerous scoring projects, and his foray into directing with the animated feature Kuso, the artist born Steven Ellison is increasingly making his mark on film as well as music. It’s a natural development for an artist who cites the influence of Shinya Tsukamoto’s grimy cyberpunk body-horror nightmare Tetsuo: The Iron Man as often as he does any given musician. The man did get his start composing Adult Swim bumpers, after all.
Ellison recently contributed original music to two anime productions: a Blade Runner 2049 anime prequel short and the series Carole & Tuesday. He makes his full-length anime scoring debut with Yasuke, a new Netflix series, animated by Japan’s MAPPA studio, that spins a wild cosmic yarn from the mysterious historical case of a real-life Black samurai during the much-romanticized shogunate era. Though the protagonist is based on an actual figure from the 16th century, the show is not limited to a medieval milieu: The action is charged with superpowered mecha, sojourns through time, trippy battle sequences, and sinister Catholic priests. Credit Yasuke creator LeSean Thomas, who made an early name for himself at Adult Swim—just like Flying Lotus—with these innovations before relocating to South Korea and eventually Japan. Thomas is much like the hero of his show: a self-starting, singularly driven individual who has carved out a new space for himself in a country and industry he is not native to.
Ellison is rendered as a samurai on the cover of the Yasuke soundtrack, though his sunglasses are as much Blade as medieval knight. It’s hard not to take that image as a metaphor: Like a samurai, Ellison is constantly testing himself and honing his skills. In a recent interview, he describes his emotional connection to the story of Yasuke, both as someone who has felt like an outsider in various worlds—a hip-hop producer and electronic DJ branching out into jazz, a musician making movies, a fan of David Lynch working with David Lynch—and more specifically because of his own experiences in Japan as a Black man. An intense and prolific collaborator, Ellison is far from being a lone ronin, but his style remains his own. His first few records as Flying Lotus are firmly part of the Los Angeles beat scene: a swirl of psychedelic drum patterns, fusion jazz bass lines, and the chirps and clicks of video game soundtracks. Soon, he’d flesh out that base pattern into something even more cosmic and expansive—truly maximalist works inspired by progressive rock and spiritual jazz. Yasuke strips down many of those familiar references and molds them into a more minimalist form. Though tracks like “Your Lord” incorporate sparse strings, flutes, and wooden percussion meant to evoke East Asian musical traditions, Ellison is careful to avoid falling prey to the tropes common to Western stereotypes of Japanese music.
Ellison said that he wanted to break with what one might expect from an anime score by a producer with roots in hip-hop, offering a counterpoint to explicitly beat-driven soundtracks like RZA’s Afro Samurai or the cult favorite Samurai Champloo, created by regular Flying Lotus collaborator Shinichirō Watanabe and with a soundtrack by the late lo-fi beats progenitor Nujabes. These shows use hip-hop as a way to break with anime tradition, whereas Yasuke pays homage to scoring conventions while also incorporating the occasional trap drum or mind-bending synthesizer effect. Ellison’s cues don’t overwhelm or outshine the show’s visuals; his synth-driven riffs are often comfortable hanging out on the margins, a series of undulating tones grounding the emotional movement of a scene.
As his profile has grown, Ellison’s albums have come to include more vocal features—2019’s Flamagra put Denzel Curry and David Lynch back to back—but the guests sometimes distract from the complexity and creativity of his actual compositions. Scoring, however, gives his work room to breathe. Right-hand man Thundercat’s falsetto is cast as the lead in the protagonist’s theme, “Black Gold,” a moment of dreamy reflection in a show frequently filled with kinetic action. Regular collaborator Niki Randa adds an angelic tenor to the stringed introspection of “Hiding in the Shadows” and the trip-hop of “Between Memories.”
There’s often a self-consciously vintage sound to Flying Lotus’ cues, from bubbling Moog tones reminiscent of Jean-Jacques Perrey and Wendy Carlos on “Shoreline Sus” to Vangelis and John Carpenter-type beats on “Pain and Blood” and “War Lords.” Though much of Yasuke is shaped by synthesizers, it’s only appropriate that drums begin to dominate during battle sequences, like the pounding tablas and timpanis of “Fighting Without Honor,” a flurry of jangly percussion that rings out as skilled warriors stand their ground. Ellison circles around hip-hop in his score and sometimes steps away from it entirely, but here and there he embraces it: “Mind Flight” climaxes with trap hi-hats, and “Survivors” is a boom-bap cut destined for YouTube rainy-day study playlists. The lone rap verse comes from Denzel Curry on “African Samurai,” who asserts himself over a sparse, trembling beat.
Taken into consideration alongside Ellison’s own growing body of animated work, Yasuke illuminates the kinship between Flying Lotus’ musical and visual instincts. Just as Thomas synthesizes sci-fi mecha and paperback fantasy with Japanese medieval history, Ellison’s universe is constructed out of jazz riffs, new-age synthesizer noodling, hip-hop drums, and the sounds of the many, many anime he’s ingested over the years, all coming together into one cohesive frame. In Yasuke’s self-consciously hybrid genre approach, Ellison finds himself well matched with a like-minded visual artist who dreams up new worlds and alternate timelines. Flying Lotus ultimately asks us to consider electronic music in similarly fantastical terms: Why limit yourself to one style or school of sound when an infinitude of timbres and textures is at your fingertips?
Buy: Rough Trade
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