Wednesday, October 22, 2014

album review: 'you're dead!' by flying lotus

I think if I remember 2014 for anything when it comes to my music criticism career, it'll be for two things. The first is turning me around on R&B - it was never really a genre I had embraced before, but with the rising tide of it in the mainstream and some genuinely great albums, I've come to appreciate it a lot more.

And the second would be my exploration of electronic music. I suspect to some extent this will continue to be an ongoing process, as I'm still working on getting a grip on how to write at length about acts that don't really use a lot of lyrics, but with every release, it's getting easier, especially when the acts have a knack for experimentation that can drive a lot of conversation.

Case in point, Flying Lotus, the stage name of L.A. producer Steven Ellison. His career originally kicked into motion with his second album Los Angeles in 2008, but his real success would come from the gleaming, eclectic, and generally pretty damn awesome Cosmogramma in 2010. And even coming from a guy who doesn't tend to love electronic music, that album gripped me immediately with its aggressively textured and detailed percussion, its masterful layered melodies on both synthesizers and classical instrumentation, and the off-kilter twists that suggested more than a passing influence of jazz fusion. Every listen revealed more fascinating twists that hid moments of genuine beauty in the details, not to mention some fantastic grooves that some artists would have elongated into entire songs alone. It's a genuinely thrilling album to listen through, and thus I'll admit I wasn't quite as gripped by his 2012 follow-up Until The Quiet Comes. It was a more restrained record, with more jazzy elements and more guests, but to me it lacked some of the flair, some of those transcendent and gorgeous moments that defined Cosmogramma so well. Plus, the more languid pace made some of the more grating moments drag on longer than they really should.

But all of that wasn't going to put me off checking out Flying Lotus' newest record, You're Dead! And at first glimpse, it looked like something of a different animal, swapping out vocals from Thom Yorke for verses from Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg. So what happened here?

Well, we got a pretty damn impressive album, that's for sure. Easily picking up for me after Until The Quiet Comes, Flying Lotus seems to have found that solid middleground between off-kilter experimentation and smooth rhythmic jazz - and then he went above and beyond and fused it with a thematic progression which is kind of fascinating in its own right. I'm not going to say this album is without its flaws, but in terms of experimental electronic music mixed with this brand of jazz, I really quite liked this.

And yet it's also the sort of record that's kind of impossible to discuss in my usual format, mostly because it's all interwoven around a very specific theme summed up in the title: death. Now it's not the first time I've heard records about encroaching death and rebirth this year, but the tone that Flying Lotus takes is decidedly different, in that it aims to capture the flurry of human emotions that might come at the sudden awareness that death is upon the protagonist. Now this manifests on one of the more contentious points of this album: the average track length is barely two minutes, which leaves many musical idea, some of which could have carried entire full-length pieces, feeling formed but not expanded or fully fleshed out. Now I'd make the argument that's the point: it's adding to the suddenness, the sense of now that permeates the album - it's Death coming with an exclamation point.

So when the album begins with a massive swell of strings before breaking into an off-kilter glitchy keyboard line punctuated by horns and stuttering drums and chimes, before breaking into the second track 'Tesla', all clattering, explosive percussion and fantastic bass courtesy of Thundercat, it captures that sudden panicked urgency so well before transitioning into the angry guitars of 'Cold Dead', the transition from denial straight to rage. But in a odd characteristic of this album, it's not a moment of anger that really coalesces, because it transitions into a smooth horns line and some drifting symphonic vocals that almost seems to show our protagonist cooling off, almost with disbelief - I mean, it's not like just because he was told he was dead doesn't mean it's destined to happen. It's why Kendrick Lamar's verse on 'Never Catch Me' work so well with its smooth pianos and bouncing clatter of drums and bass, mostly because it's so optimistic, a metaphorical step away from the situation to refocus and assert what is known and reassess himself.

Of course, the following song 'Dead Man's Tetris' is a shot of reality to the situation, all modulated chiptunes, gunfire samples, and Snoop Dogg's sly rejoinder implying there isn't exactly any getting away from death. It's a really odd track, full of echoing samples, and it really does completely kill the momentum of Kendrick's track - and I get the feeling it was designed precisely for that purpose. And yet the momentum kicks into high gear right after that on 'Turkey Dog Coma', with fuzzy guitars and incredibly tight bass coming through to balance against the eerie keys before the drum transition midway through to add another surge of energy before fading again with the knowledge of the inevitable coming back. The balance between those emotions manifests most on the next track with vocals 'Coronus, The Terminator', which features reversed guitar leads, rain, chimes, and ghostly voices almost reminiscent of a funeral beckoning our narrator into the cool embrace of death and the journey that might come after. This psychedelic vibe continues onto 'Siren Song', that does feature some solid guitar melodies, but the multi-traced vocals courtesy of Angel Deradoorian fall out of sync with each other a few too many times to really connect with me. In a certain way, this track and the following 'Turtles', which features a great muted bass line and eerie fluttering chimes, almost seem to call to mind the hypnotic call of death, a call for our narrator to follow the Valkyries and go quietly into that good night.

And yet it doesn't happen. 'Ready Err Not' takes the popping, minor key saturated melody line and shows the glitchiness on the edges, a moment of necessary uncertainty when one could imagine the narrator realizing that he doesn't actually know what comes after. From there the album gets darker, with the scratchy percussion, hazy cymbals, and chilling melody of 'Eyes Above' that transitions perfectly into the trembling rush of 'Moment of Hesitation', where the energy kicks back into gear thanks to fantastic drum progressions as the narrator proves he won't die easily. But the knowledge that death is coming anyway creeps into 'Descent Into Madness' and 'The Boys That Died In Their Sleep', complete with off-kilter strings and subtle rumbles before breaking into distorted high and low voices of Flying Lotus in his Captain Murphy persona in a genuinely unsettling moment where insanity drives him to overdose. This is arguably the weirdest moment on the album, and in my opinion the most flawed for two reasons. For one, even despite the distortion the high vocals are distractingly bad, and then they just fade out instead of a clean transition, putting an audible break in the album's progression that really doesn't help it. Thankfully, things improve considerably with the rush of theremin and strings of 'Obligatory Cadence', punctuated by cackles and symphonic vocals as our narrator seems to realize how he's been fooled, tricked by his own mind to his doom. Yet with the gorgeous vocals of Niki Randa beckoning to him on 'Your Potential/The Beyond' with the chimes and strings, it seems like some dignity might remain in his passage. And then the album ends with 'The Protest', a moment that might seem like a moment of plaintive anticlimax as wistful spirits say they'll live on, even though the album has emphasized we and they really can't know that. But then you realize there's a different message entirely: that despite humanity's fear of death, those who live leave their touch behind forever, and thus are always felt. It's what makes the tone of this album make more sense, because it's not really mournful or angry but showing acceptance of the inevitable, and implicitly telling us to live our lives to the fullest.

So to make a long story short, You're Dead! by Flying Lotus is fascinating, frequently gorgeous, surprisingly cohesive, and definitely thought-provoking in the questions that it raises. It's not perfect - I get the feeling that 'Dead Man's Tetris' was only written so Flying Lotus could get Snoop Dogg on this album, and there are a few moments that could have felt a bit tighter - but it's a damn fine album all the same that definitely deserves its 8/10. Folks, if you're looking for a jazzy electronic music album that doesn't wear out its welcome and does tell a certain type of story, albeit thinly sketched, definitely give You're Dead! a listen. You won't regret it.

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