This fall has been a big season for Intelligent Dance Music. In the same few weeks that Thom Yorke of Radiohead fame dropped his second solo album Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes and Aphex Twin released Syro, his first album in 13 years — both to critical acclaim — Los Angeles-based electronic musician Steven Ellison, better known under his alias Flying Lotus, dares to venture into the musical limelight with his latest record, You’re Dead!
His venture has indeed been a bold one, with FlyLo taking a multi-pronged approach to promoting his album. In August, Ellison gave fans a preview by releasing the tracklist, song by song, via his Tumblr page. Each song announcement was accompanied by special artwork made by Japanese illustrator Shintaro Kago, who draws in the guro manga style — not for the faint of heart, since the genre combines eroticized elements of gore, guts and the grotesque, which all seem rather fitting given the album’s morbid emphasis on death and the afterlife. To further push the “concept album” vibe of his latest record, Ellison put together “Day of You’re Dead” on Oct. 3, where he teamed up with underground music project Boiler Room to play his album on a 24-hour Internet stream along with a visual piece titled “Psychedelic Death Trip” by filmmaker Xavier Magot. To FlyLo, it’s imperative that listeners digest all components of a work, be they visual or musical, in order to fully appreciate it — hence his emphasis on art and film.
Ellison’s recurring habit of creating long tracklists full of short, choppy songs is highly manifested in You’re Dead! — clocking in at under 40 minutes, this 19-song record seems like it was made for those with short attention spans, or anyone looking to hear a frantic, yet masterful auditory tableau. In it, he brings his usual jazz-influenced electronic style to the table — no surprise, since he’s the nephew of famed jazz musicians Alice and John Coltrane — but this time around, he ramps up the instrumentalism and live-sounding quality to his music, all of which sets him far apart from his electronic contemporaries of the “drop-centric” EDM persuasion.
The opening track, “Theme,” hits listeners with a striking, rapid-fire medley of progressive jazz, co-opted by FlyLo and sprinkled with his signature smatterings of electronic bass. The following few songs continue this instrumental jazz theme, including drum-heavy “Tesla” and “Fkn Dead,” a 40-second slow jam that showcases funky electric guitar licks.
The main single off the album, “Never Catch Me,” features vocals by rapper Kendrick Lamar, who waxes poetic on life and death with lyrics like “This that life beyond your own life / This ain’t physical for mankind / This that out-of-body experience / no coincidence you been died.” Lamar’s lyricism quite literally sets the thanatophilic tone for the entire album, just in case the listener doesn’t catch FlyLo’s drift this far into the album.
Flying Lotus is known for recruiting well-known guests on his albums, being no exception. Frequent collaborators that reappear on this LP include Thundercat and Laura Darlington; renowned multi-instrumentalist Herbie Hancock even plays keyboard on a few songs. Most notably, in the track “Dead Man’s Tetris,” Ellison takes on his rapping alter ego, Captain Murphy, to spit verses alongside Snoop Dogg. The two suddenly find themselves dead in a liminal afterlife where they run into other deceased characters, rapping, “Hold up, me and Dilla ‘bout to blow some trees / Hold up, pass the Austin and the Freddie Mercury,” all over an arcade game-inspired chiptune soundscape. In “The Boys Who Died In Their Sleep,” Ellison once again assumes the role of Captain Murphy and concocts an ode to prescription drugs, slurring, “anything to take the edge away / I look inside my mind and dream about the world within my eyelids,” before jetting off into a frenetic mental pill-fueled journey.
Despite the bizarre name, “Turkey Dog Coma” is one of the standout tracks on this album; it’s a fast-paced, drum- and bass-driven song with constantly changing time signatures, almost echoing one of FlyLo’s single releases titled “About that time//A glitch is a glitch,” specially made for the soundtrack to the popular cartoon program Adventure Time. Just in giving it a quick listen, one can instantly notice how far Ellison has come in the span of just over a year while still retaining that same driving energy. He crafts an air of suave, clear-headed coolness through his layering of live instruments, synths, hums and vocalizations and it characterizes his entire repertoire.
“Siren Song” featuring Angel Deradoorian, formerly of the Dirty Projectors, is just that — a seductive and enchanting melody where Deradoorian’s celestial vocalizations weave back and forth through a slow-burning, ambient gliding and distorted guitar melody. This ethereal tone is paralleled in other tracks like “Obligatory Cadence,” which introduces lofty strings, and “Coronus, The Terminator,” a neo-soul ballad with gospel-style crooning. It’s curious how Ellison creates heavenly, angelic imagery within these songs to tie in with the overarching theme of death.
Since the duration of the actual music is spread so thin across a vast tracklist, a lot of the songs are too weak to serve as standalone tracks, which is the biggest gripe fans might have with this album at first listen. This need not be a negative thing, however; actually, it makes the reason behind the effort to present You’re Dead! as a concept album all the more apparent. FlyLo even tweeted his fans, requesting, “The first time you listen to You’re Dead! try to clear [30-plus minutes] of your super busy and important schedule and listen to the whole ride.”
If Flying Lotus fans were awaiting another Cosmogramma — one of his earlier, landmark records — You’re Dead! might prove disheartening in that it indicates an exponential departure from his early sound, which may have been hinted at in his two-year-old LP Until the Quiet Comes. For those wanting an instantly danceable, ready-for-the-club track, this album might be hard to stomach, but the rewards of FlyLo’s ambition can be reaped with patience and an open mind.
Closing on the chant, “We will live on forever and ever,” You’re Dead! may have just ironically immortalized itself within the electronic music world. Though the long tracklist might seem long and intimidating, it’s a quick listen and ends earlier than it seems it should, much like life. FlyLo is just here to guide us through, and to reassure us that there’s nothing to fear in death and the unknown.