People are often quick to point out Steven Ellison’s blood connection to the late, great jazz couple John and Alice Coltrane but the truth is that his love of jazz music only began noticeably infiltrating his electronic soundscapes as of a few years ago now. His first releases under the Flying Lotus pseudonym introduced a unique producer with hip-hop sounding beats being his primary calling card. 1983 found Ellison announcing himself with a whimsical playfulness whereas Los Angeles saw him expanding on his musical palette for a more wide-screen affair. It wasn’t actually until 2010 that jazz crept into the picture via Cosmogramma’s shuffling percussion and dancing horns but it sure hasn’t left since.
Ellison has spoken of how You’re Dead!, his fifth full-length as Flying Lotus, started life as a straight-up jazz record and one needn’t look too hard to see evidence of this – Herbie Hancock is even on the thing for god’s sake. What’s interesting is Ellison’s decision to go full-on jazz given the concept of the project i.e. the descent into the spiritual journey to death. Most people probably do not associate free-flowing skittering basslines and tasty keyboard licks with the end but Ellison manages here to make it all work into one coherent trip which touches clearly on the many stages of death.
Since starting out as a pure jazz album, You’re Dead! has quite noticeably been altered a great deal despite what ‘Moment Of Hesitation’ or ‘Turkey Dog Coma’ might have you believe. FlyLo’s usual layers of electronic noise fill out most tracks but everything always comes back to the record’s jazzy skeleton. You’re Dead! also stands easily as the most vocally prominent Flying Lotus album thus far not just because of the amount of guest spots is increased but also due to the vocals being granted more of a focus rather than being bound to the background like before. Take for instance ‘Never Catch Me’ which is miles away the most complete song of the set. After the build-up of the opening four tracks, an energised Kendrick Lamar bursts in and owns the song regardless of Thundercat’s mesmerising fretwork. Following that comes ‘Dead Man’s Tetris’ which sees Ellison’s alter-ego Captain Murphy trading verses with none other than Snoop Dogg over what sounds like the music from an old Mega Drive game being melted. Later on in ‘Coronus, The Terminator’ Ellison employs gang vocals and a plodding, tribal beat to craft an eerie take on the end of the world for another album highlight.
In reality though, these songs don’t come around too often as the majority of the record is comprised of short instrumentals which act as excellent transitions of mood and theme from the almost Philip Glass-sounding ‘Theme’ to the jazz-metal guitar of ‘Cold Dead’ and the bubbling alien noises of ‘Ready Err Not’. Given the doom-and-gloom nature of the concept You’re Dead! explores however, things end on a joyously positive conclusion with ‘The Protest’s refrain of ‘we will live on forever’. Kicking the bucket has never before sounded so appealing.