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First, there's confusion.
Steven Ellison recently told Pitchfork that his fifth Flying Lotus LP, You're Dead!, came from questions such as: "What else is out there? What could happen next? What would the moment of death sound like?" You know, the Big Questions that leave most of us bemused and slightly unsettled because, even if we all have our own theories, they're basically unanswerable and the unknown is kind of terrifying. Well, Ellison isn't most people; he seems to find the unknown both exciting and invigorating because, in exploring his theories about what's next on this record, he evokes the afterlife as a pungent and frankly baffling psychedelic trip. We're consumed by the vortex of his imagination: deliberately cast into a deranged world, one that's beyond human comprehension and in which there is no control - even if, paradoxically, this world was the meticulous design of a guy in his apartment.
So it follows that You're Dead! is an absolute headfuck of an album; often elusive, scattershot and amorphous. Its tracks are short and bereft of well defined structures, mixed in such a way as to bleed into each other. Despite sketching different experiences beyond this mortal coil, Ellison manages to form a unified album experience that feels like one dynamic, rapidly evolving piece of music. Think Cosmogramma, his third album, but not confined by the laws of the universe (read: exponentially weirder). In doing this, however, Ellison leaves little to latch onto. So many ideas are thrown out at such a pace, and so densely packed into an abundance of layers, that you're left little time to fully grasp what's going on, or, for that matter, why. You may begin to get the gist of an idea after twenty seconds or so, only to feel completely lost when Ellison throws a curveball and swiftly moves on to something completely different. Really, the only tracks that leave an initial impression are the few with vocals -- with a tangible human element -- while everything else is lost in an intense torrent of noise. It can be overwhelming at times, but not in a good way. Impenetrable, almost.
It's no great surprise, then, that You're Dead! was originally conceived as a straight-up jazz record. Disillusioned with the placidity of modern jazz, Ellison sought to issue a corrective statement; to make an album that could both revive and reinvent the wild and rhythmically dense approach of jazz-fusion, as pioneered by Miles Davies, Herbie Hancock and George Duke. While the album evolved as the death concept was introduced and other stylistic elements came into play -- hip-hop, electronica, progressive rock, even a sprinkling of metal -- it still feels like a jazz record more than anything else. Primarily, this is because You're Dead! has the most organic mix of a Flying Lotus album to date; largely built on a foundation of drums, bass guitar and keyboards, rather than the kind of digital instrumentation Ellison has grown farther from with each successive album. Because of this live band atmosphere, there's a tangible sense of interplay and improvisation, made even more impressive by the fact that he never once recorded a full band during its creation. Ellison instead recorded session musicians individually and wove the different layers together so tightly that it still feels fresh and vital. You know, like actual an jazz record.
However, while this bestows upon You're Dead! a sense of spontaneity hitherto absent from Flying Lotus' discography, jazz-fusion is not a sound you tend to hear in 2014 and it can be alienating to the untrained ear. The rapid pace of the record may leave you dazed at the best of times, but, coupled with jazz fusion's labyrinthine time signatures and convergence of styles, the record verges on information overload at times. Which isn't a value judgement, exactly. It's just a different approach that a large portion of Flying Lotus' audience (myself included) isn't particularly familiar with, even with his past forays into free-jazz. So, in that sense, the confrontational spirit that instigated the You're Dead! project never faded. He could have made an album of accessible bangers if he so desired, but that isn't really his style; he prefers to challenge both himself and listeners to take in different experiences, to shake off the crutches of conventionality and embrace something new. To be blunt, Ellison wouldn't have made a jazz-fusion record in 2014 if he wanted everybody to feel at ease and instantly 'get it'. So it may be daunting and incomprehensible and weird as fuck, but it's absolutely by design.
Then you begin to get the hang of it.
Because Ellison's intentions wouldn't mean a thing if the music itself didn't resonate. And it does. Eventually. We take it for granted at this point, but Steven Ellison is a magnificent producer who, through some absurd genius magic that I don't want to spoil by thinking too much about, conjures up sounds that can instantly galvanise you, light you up and free your mind. He's not changed tact on You're Dead!, even if he switched up his sound. Sure, it might take a while to let the experience sink in and process the ways in which he's presented his ideas; you may have to train yourself to make sense of what's going on and listen to the album deeply a fair few times; but that's hardly a bad thing. On the contrary, it's rewarding. Through repeated listens, You're Dead! blossoms; cogent ideas and layers become more apparent as you become more familiar with the album's sprawling structure. Certain melodies, textures and even whole tracks -- insofar as they actually exist -- settle down and nest in your mind. I mean, I found myself spontaneously singing 'Coronus, the Terminator' while cooking dinner, humming the vocal melody of 'The Protest' in the shower, thinking about a sax solo from 'Cold Dead' pretty much constantly. Jazz-fusion may not be a sound you hear in 2014 (in popular channels at least), but, with Ellison's deft touch, You're Dead! is all the more interesting because of that. It's just an interesting sound once you get to grips with it, unique and really quite hypnotic.
And, soon enough, the album's dumbfounding pace becomes a marvel to behold. There's an exhilaration to be found in the aural gymnastics pulled off by Ellison and his session musicians, something incredibly invigorating in keeping up with them and unpicking their dense rhythms. Moreover, their dexterity and rapidity contributes to an overall sound that's distinctive and rich, that erupts with vibrant plumes of colour and beauty. And therein lies one of the album's most interesting facets: for something so overtly concerned with death, it's never morose or baleful, or even particularly dark. Really, the exclamation mark in the title indicates exuberances more than anything; the album is jubilant, grandiose and weirdly playful, like Ellison is suggesting that there's as much beauty to celebrate in death as there is in life, and that death is merely the beginning of something else, something different. The decision to craft an album that's initially so daunting actually exacerbates this; it foregrounds Ellison's theme, puts you in the head of someone who's experiencing the afterlife for the first time. For Ellison, death, like all new experiences, takes some getting used to, and, as you become more comfortable with its weirdness, the joy and beauty gradually begin to devour everything else. Funnily enough, that was my exact experience with You're Dead!
Finally, there's bliss.
Because, really, isn't this what Flying Lotus is all about? About pushing boundaries? About jolting you out of your everyday stupor and challenging you to see the world afresh? I mean, Ellison has never made a record like You're Dead before. Not as Flying Lotus. Not as Captain Murphy. And certainly not for anybody else's artistic project. In this sense, it's in equal measure the most and least typical album Ellison has made; it may not necessarily sound like anything he's made before, but it's true to his innovative spirit. But it goes beyond that, because I'm unsure whether anybody has made a record like You're Dead before. I've not heard anything like it and I've certainly not even scratched its surface after having had a month with it. This record is a wholly singular work; not only does it defy expectations of what a Flying Lotus album should sound like, it totally obliterates any preconceptions about what can be released by a remotely popular contemporary musician. And, sure, that's not inherently virtuous, you may find the album to be incomprehensibly sprawling and masturbatory. But holy shit is it refreshing. And, once you get on this album's level, holy shit is it freeing.
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