Concept albums in electronic music are few and far between (and generally in music since the seventies) though hip-hop seems has a couple of examples with albums like Deltron 3030. Still, L.A. beat maker, label-owner and more recently rapper Steve Ellison, better known as Flying Lotus, is no stranger to big ideas. Showing himself as a consistently creative producer since breaking out with his second album, the urban grit-fused Los Angeles and following it up with the heady jazz psychedelics of Cosmograma and Until The Quiet Comes' more softer dream state Flying Lotus has gone further into making music that contains that spur of the moment feel of jazz with the laboured perfection of electronica.
His latest release You're Dead! Is his concept album, based on ruminations and pondering into the afterlife. Life, or existence, after death is an idea explored in everything from Hinduism to the Jedis in Star Wars but may not be a widely explored topic in music. Flying Lotus takes it on with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of his Auntie, Alice Coltrane's, forays into spiritual jazz.
It begins with a low earthy drone before the track breaks out into a number of false starts like its trying to settle on an idea to begin with. The result can sound overwhelming like it's through it's many, many sounds at you all at once, and serves as an apt taster of what to expect for the next forty minutes. You're Dead! is mad and excessive enough to have as much in common with prog-rock (yes, really) than anything with the current L.A. Beat scene. There are even a couple of lead lines from electric guitars showing up here and there. Still, there are no five minute solos here, tracks are short and sharp, skipping from one idea to the next.
In demand serial collaborator and Kendrick Lamar appears on Never Catch Me and justifies his contribution with the best verses on You're Dead!. He raps 'Ain't no blood pumpin' no fear, I got hope inside of my bones', the lines tumble and free fall over a constantly evolving Footwork beat. On the next track Snoop Dogg shows up to deliver his distinct, blazed rhymes alongside Lotus' rapper alter-ego Captain Murphy on a track that lurches forward with a stoned, stomping beat. There are some familiar collaborators for regular listeners, Thundercat and Niki Randa appear, with Thundercat's distinctive fret-hopping bass playing, which has been a constant in the last two Flying Lotus albums, featuring throughout the record.
At the albums centre is Coronus, The Terminator ushering in the albums' more introspective, meditative second half by providing a cut of lush and dream-like slowed down soul, taking the tempo down a notch and bringing in some layered vocals which segues perfectly into the equally sedate Siren Song featuring Angel Deradoorian of The Dirty Projectors' voice jumping to and fro. Herbie Hancock appears on Moment of Hesitation which lets go of its beat trappings and becomes a rhythmic jazz freak-out. Pong-style bleeps of carry Ready Err Not before the album introduces some more standard but still appreciated beat driven fare with tracks like Turtles, Obligatory Cadence and closer The Protest.
For all it's indulgences it just about manages to stay on the right side things, staying playful and thoughtful with it's many ideas that blur genre and style into a strange but complete whole, leagues ahead of any contemporaries. The many jumping off points and collaborators make for a jumbled and intense listen, lacking the cohesiveness of lotus' other albums but it's twists and turns are always interesting. His push into more real instrumentation really pushes to set it out as something different from his back catalogue and through its many faces it only goes to reinforce how unknowable death is. If Flying Lotus is right about anything on You're Dead!, wherever it leads, the afterlife will be a wild trip.