Flying Lotus - 2014
The premise behind, ‘You’re Dead’, as Flying Lotus (aka Steven Ellison) said was, to ‘do something different and switch it up a little bit. So if Miles (Davis) heard it, he’d be like, “OK, that’s what y’all doing.”….Make him chin stroke a little bit.’ It certainly set up quite a task for Ellison to accomplish but with those lofty expectations in mind he has created a wondrously unique blend of Jazz, Fusion, Hip Hop and Electronic music. As you can imagine, the sound that Ellison successfully managed to derive through selective and tasteful combinations of these genres, is a ‘Brew’ that the ‘Prince of Darkness’ would most certainly have enjoyed if he was still with us. The album is set up as a commentary on death, a rather cliché subject to cover and one that would lead you to believe that it would be rather introspective at times, a dirge at others, and overall, not a barrel of laughs. However, what makes Ellison’s take on the matter as unique as the music that conveys his thoughts on it, is that overall, the album comes across as a celebration of ‘the end’. It manages to keep the mystery and sometimes madness of the subject without giving in to musical stereotypes or the pretentiousness that can come with saying that you’re going to cover ‘death’ on an album. The slightly positively passive predicament of a tone is conveyed with a core arsenal of fantastic musicians: Deantoni Parks on drums, Kamasi Washington on saxophone and Thundercat on bass. Employed by Ellison as guest stars on the album are a mixed bunch of artists such as Snoop Dogg, Angel Deradoorian, Kendrick Lamar and of ‘Metalocalypse’ fame, guitarist Brendon Small (who’s work on the prog-rock/fusion track, ‘Cold Dead’, is of particular note). Combining all these talents without pigeon-holing every one of them and instead blending their talents is one of the great triumphs of Ellison’s work on, ‘You’re Dead’ and in its success it helps lend itself to the unique sound of the album.
The running time of the tracks is generally, decidedly brief (only two out of the nineteen tracks exceeds three minutes in length, and 9 of them don’t even reach the two minute mark!) with the ideas on death either thrown up against the wall violently or otherwise posted on it delicately and deliberately. As we only have a short period of time to take in these ideas, the want to go back again and again to them is great, as although they are short in length they are extremely weighted in depth. In other words, a surprising amount happens in these tracks in such a brief time. You just have to listen to ‘Moment of Hesitation’ to see hear how frenetic, ‘You’re Dead’ can be at times. Featuring Herbie Hancock, it’s an eerie recalling of what made Miles Davis’s, ‘In A Silent Way’, so spectacular. Fast runs and slightly disjointed interactions get ‘brushed’ past us at a furious pace leaving us slightly in awe of what just transpired in under three minutes. It’s this buzzing pace and saturated layering that is on show throughout the first seven tracks of the album. From the opening track, ‘Theme’ to, ‘Turkey Dog Coma’, we are placed on high alert and through my ears, it’s Ellison exploring the moment of suddenness when we meet death and the who, what, why and when of that meeting. It’s particularly frantic, frenetic and heavily infused in the fusion of the 70s with only the slower Hip Hop oriented, ‘Dead Man’s Tetris’ giving us some slight reprieve of the hectic nature of the album’s opening. The short yet stunningly beautiful acoustic work on, ‘Stirring’ is the corridor from which the album’s pace runs from hot to cool (all manners of the word meant). The Badu-esque, ‘Coronus, The Terminator’ is a gentle welcome to the other side which Ellison portrays in a variety of different colors from the Radiohead blips of, ‘Ready Err Not’ to the bizarre ramblings and trippy nature of, ‘Descent of Madness’. The final four tracks of the album cuts a rather conciliatory tone, where acceptance is neither wanted nor fought against. Ellison gives us ‘The Protest’, to end with and with it a groove to end on an uplifting if not passive note.
The true highlight of ‘You’re Dead’ just happens to be the longest track of the album (still just under four minutes), ‘Never Catch Me’. The performance of Kendrick Lamar alone makes this funk infused track a giant among the album’s other mini-bites (delicious though they may be). The final minute, as the music congests and crescendos in double-time, boasts as good a groove as there’s been on the Jazz scene this year. Which leads us to this question – does ‘You’re Dead’ really have the right to be considered a Jazz/Fusion album as it is often being categorized as. Personally, I think it does it a disservice to do so. ‘You’re Dead’ has its own thing going on entirely and it’s fair at this moment to think of it as lying somewhere between a multitude of different genres. Aside from it being unfair to consign the sound of the album to one genre, calling it Jazz will cut out a slew of the potential audience for it which is extremely unfair but let’s face it – Jazz is an immediate turn off for most. Is it heavily influenced by Jazz? Absolutely, but no more so than all the other genres such as the aforementioned, Hip Hop and Electronic styles. It’s a new art form that Ellison has created - one that is an amalgamation of a variety of sounds that are instantly recognizable and therefore, aurally edible; new but familiar. With this being Ellison’s fifth album, and each one stretching further out from the other, one can only hope that he continues to branch out in his future endeavors, giving us new scenes to take in from his ever expanding musical landscape.Andrew Scott Back
Andrew Scott ranks this as the
#5 favorite album of 2014