Flying Lotus brings fans to the afterlife with You’re Dead!
What is jazz music in 2014? What could it become? While I would shudder at the task of addressing this through writing, Steven Ellison, the heavily experimental and highly esteemed multi-genre music pioneer best known by fans as Flying Lotus or more recently as the elusive rapper-villain Captain Murphy, has crafted a worthy hypothesis in his latest LP, You’re Dead!.
We haven’t heard from Flying Lotus in a while; his last record under that alias was 2012’s gorgeous Until the Quiet Comes. In those last two years, the quiet must have indeed come, and then gone again, as this record is, in addition to being gracefully brilliant, downright cacophonous.
Ellison considers this at least partially a jazz album, although he has admitted that it’s a bit more ‘Flying Lotus’ than he initially anticipated. I consider it an art gallery of black holes. I doubt either categorization could really do this album justice, however, because it very deliberately resists being any one thing. Instead of carving out its own niche and expanding from that center, You’re Dead!, all the way down to the playfully confrontational title, derives its highest joy from yanking the rug out from under itself with a startling frequency. It finds solace in its restlessness, mystical lucidity in its moments of insanity and, most defiantly, life in its death.
Atmospheric reversed acoustic guitar samples are actually some of the less obscure elements of Ellison’s 2014 palette; chimes, saxophones,
some violins and even sounds of rain all find comfortable corners to rest in as FlyLo pushes the hapless listener through his series of afterlives with his more traditional array of classic-sounding kicks, thick synths and longtime collaborator Thundercat’s immortal and iconic bass playing. These sounds are all stitched together carefully—jazz legend Herbie Hancock helped Ellison compose many of these songs—to create a surprisingly coherent tapestry of sounds. This is dense music that washes over you lightly.
I’m listening to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew right now to further understand this album, and I think Ellison might have been as well. That record’s haunting, taunting, skittery vibe, its eeriness and its mystery all seem to live at the heart of FlyLo’s latest release, although perhaps hidden under more layers than Miles Davis could assemble in his lifetime.
Tracks like “Tesla” and the last minute of “Turkey Dog Coma” dabble heavily in Brew-era sax freakouts and practically manic live drum patterns, but this influence is by no means contained to tracks that are dedicated to it. Instead, the jazz insanity is expertly mixed with several other sources of destabilization to produce an all-engulfing vortex whose sole purpose seems to be preventing its listener from successfully having any thoughts.
Far more than adjectives, this record lends itself to verbs and concrete images. The music seems to escape any qualities that could be used to describe it and instead insists that it is doing. Perhaps this is where the mystical element, an inexplicable feeling that has always been present in Flying Lotus’ work, comes in. This music, as all of Flying Lotus’ releases do, has an unplaceable power; in the chaos of its eternal motion, it almost seems to have its own agency.
You’re Dead! opens with “Theme,” which first sounds like a fanfare to the beginning of the universe or the sound of a cosmic pot of holy water boiling over. A tension flashes briefly, slowly growing under the surface. A single note is suspended, a surplus energy revealed, and then everything explodes, as if a traffic light in space had switched to green. Spaceships run around each other haphazardly for about a minute and then suddenly fade away.
Then again, to say this record “opens” at any one time would be inaccurate—far closer to the truth would be to say it opens and closes constantly, even relentlessly.
As a microcosm of the entire album, “Theme” perfectly summarizes what lives inside of its vinyl disc or audio files, although by no means does it give everything away in the process. As that track does, this album is constantly morphing, in turns grotesque and gorgeous, often in the same song. It’s not an inaccessible record (it’s certainly no Yeezus) but it’s not one for the faint of heart. You’re Dead! is a challenging afterlife that never quite lets you die, but those who face it will know that it holds many worthy secrets.