Sometimes, just sometimes, an artist manages to come up with a title and album cover so perfectly suited to the music that it seems like destiny is at work. Flight of the Cosmic Hippo is one of those discs; it's a wacky, unnervingly addictive stew of musical playfulness like nothing else out there, and all the fun humor is only a bonus on top of the mind-bending virtuosity and stellar composition on offer. Just take four minutes to listen to the head-spinning "Blu-Bop" and you'll know what I mean; it flows as smoothly as the simplest three-chord rock ballad, yet the interweaving melodies make a kaleidoscopic spectrum of tones complex enough to induce a migraine if you try picking them apart. Bela had already established a reputation as an extraordinary banjoist before forming the group, and outside the bluegrass framework most of his solo work had occupied, his all-encompassing musical sensibility here just runs completely hog-wild. (Take cover!)
The cover tunes here seem to run between the high and low ends of the spectrum, which is why I notch down a star. "Star of the County Down," propelled by Howard Levy's masterful harmonica, is beautifully reworked into a slow, bluesy country waltz. "The Star-Spangled Banner" is hardly recognizable at first, being embellished with furious banjo picking and a shuffling synth-drum beat more suited to a lively jazz performance. The track bears numerous repeat listenings and ends up surprisingly resistant to becoming a one-time novelty, but their reworking of the Beatles' "Michelle" never gets off the ground to me. I keep wishing they'd used that album space for another of Bela's own tunes instead. Every one of those is a dynamic, fascinating exercise in modern composition, from the oddly funky groove of "Flying Saucer Dudes" to the driving "Turtle Rock" to the strange odd time signatures of "Jekyll and Hyde (and Ted and Alice)." If you're a musician you'll be blown away by the sheer superhuman skill of everyone in the group.. if not, you'll still have to admit that it just sounds really awesome.
Bela and his Tones embody the true spirit of fusion more than possibly anyone else - they take great delight in bending, ignoring or destroying any notions of style or genre we might have, making everything sound fresh, inventive and full of promise. Cosmic Hippo can't quite compare with the monumental Live Art as their most perfect album, but there's enough incredible stuff to make it well worth picking up. Just be prepared to spend more money on the others once you get hooked.