Monday, October 6, 2014

In Revue- 'You're Dead! (Flying Lotus)

The "new jazz" is what one enthusiastic Stereogum commenter calls the fifth Flying Lotus album You're Dead! But really that descriptor, while accurate, is one of countless ways to frame Steven Ellison's new masterpiece. Astral. Spacey. Soulful. Warm. Aggressive. Calm. Lively. Necromancing. Bold. Quiet. Circular. Universal. Those words are all equally appropriate. Particularly the last of that laundry list. Not "universal" in the sense that this album could be loved by everyone; it's far too "experimental" for that. Universal meaning that it shapes and molds stray notes into something so cosmically vast that continued exploration is not tiresome.

I've lived inside of You're Dead! for four days now, playing it at least 20 times all the way through. I've sprinkled flecks of ginger onto chicken while the funk guitars of "Cold Dead" surged from my speakers. A quilt covered my head when the tense strings of "Turkey Dog Coma" faded into the stale air of my dark bedroom. I bounced to the Snoop Dogg feature "Dead Man's Tetris" on the way to class in my Scion XB and felt like Leo in Titanic, "king of the world." And not once during any of those moments did I have the slightest urge to turn the music off.

Part of that can be chalked up to the hypnosis FlyLo puts you under on You're Dead! "Theme"'s initial raga-style drones create such a dense haze that movement is impossible. The image of a runner trying to push through an Olympic-sized pool of Jell-O comes to mind when Kendrick Lamar’s laudable verse bolts over "Never Catch Me"'s hobbled synthesizers. "Step inside of my mind and you'll find curiosity, animosity, high velocity like the prophesied meditation," the Compton MC breathlessly promises. With those rapidly firing neurons, he stalls on the simple idea of a song uniting us all in love. If we can find any kind of common ground, we can delay the “embalming fluid” for as long as possible.

Of course the whole idea of You're Dead! is that the pale specter of death will visit everyone, at least one time, if not more. The crooning vocals of "Coronus, the Terminator" could just as easily be the Grim Reaper's as Otis Redding's or Al Green's. Those little trembles in the background couldn’t possibly come from this plane of existence. FlyLo's metronomic drum claps move your feet, but those consciously weird effects paw at your soul with icy hands. The panning guitar that opens the track sounds is Isaac Hayes crossing over at séance. Or a funky soundtrack to crossing the River Styx.

Ellison never once says on the album that death isn't fearful, but he doesn't have to. The bold glimmering music speaks volumes about the beauty that lies in flatlining. There are former Dirty Projectors member Angel Deradoorian's sighs in "Siren Song" which fizz like a plastic bottle of gently shaken Sprite. Each "ooh" and "ahh" over the wah-wahing guitars and muttering bass is a pat on the back, a warm reassurance that everything will be okay in the end. The comfort continues into "Turtles" where the background jangle of wind-chimes and twittering birds calmly greet you. Initially it's jarring to hear something so naturalistic on an electronic album, but FlyLo's proven over time that he can make anything sound organic. Snoop Dogg's laconic G-funk drawl has no business pairing with experimental electronic-jazz, or whatever clunky descriptor you want to use for You're Dead!, but it's there on the hallucinatory 8-bit take "Dead Man's Tetris." "No jokes, no hoax, felt his palms he had no pulse" Snoop easily raps, sounding as good as he has at least since "That Tree." When Ellison's able to not only collaborate with true legends, but get them to bend to the afterlife narrative he's crafting, you see how inspiring his vision is.

If this all this talk of "grand visions" and death sounds self-serious, it isn't. Ellison's on record as saying, "I try to think about these things with a tongue-in-cheek perspective," and it's been rightly pointed out that the "joyous" exclamation point in the album title sheds some weight from the subject. "I wanted it to be playful, because it's the one experience we have in common. I wanted to make something that captures death from different angles—from the sad moments, to the confusing moments, to maybe even the blissful and silly ones," Ellison said in a Pitchfork Update.

That playfulness is everywhere. "Ready Err Not" ingeniously incorporates a version of the Looney Tunes "boing" sound effect into a mélange of metronomic ticks and aquatic bleeps. A laugh suspiciously similar to the Mortal Kombat chuckle bellows in "The Boys Who Died in Their Sleep." Something about Thundercat's feathery singing of "walls are closing in" on "Descent Into Madness" makes me picture a wise guy angel who can't keep from cracking jokes when you approach the pearly gates. He wants to get in one last knock-knock joke before he writes your name into the Book of Life. He says "there's no escape" but it's in such an airy tone that you'd never believe him.

A form of acceptance finally comes when Kimbra and Laura Darlington's voices coolly stutter "we will live on forever" as lithe bop piano sweeps up the last pieces of a life in closer "The Protest." It's a simple and calm declaration, one far less harried than the footwork moves around it, but incredibly profound. For all the worrying we do about the temporary nature of life, we never stop to think how long our names can live on. We don't consider that one simple action of opening a door for someone or letting another car go past in traffic can travel from one person to another in an unbreakable chain. Will all the cells in our bodies eventually wither away? Absolutely. So will every piece of hair, every hunk of skin, every last nail. But focusing on individual pieces is too myopic. We need to look at the bigger picture and see that death is just a part of life and vice-versa. So it goes with every cry, laugh, whisper and scream of You're Dead!. They're all fleeting moments pieced together to form a timeless album.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

"i"- Kendrick Lamar

T.I. had a 2006 album where he proclaimed himself King. In the same year Pusha T's regal status was signified by a cockeyed crown he wore on the cover of Hell Hath No Fury. Hip hop's seen "the best rapper alive," "superheroes," and a "rap god." But every last one of those artists feels distanced from their audience. In being royalty you naturally slip from the everyday tedium of normalcy. The longer you sit on the mountaintop, the less time you have to commune with the villagers down below. 

One glaring exception to the rule and perhaps the only legitimate claimant to the title of king is "King" Kendrick Lamar. Between good kid, m.A.A.d. city's runaway success in 2012, the Twitter-breaking "Control" in August 2013, a particularly firebreathing BET Cypher session last October and a continuous stream of breathless guest verses in 2014, Lamar's firmly established his kingship. But he's also retained his "humanity" in the process. He headlines festivals while still rocking those Nike Cortez shows and white tees. Lamar still lays his head in Los Angeles and shows up to local radio stations to let the hometown hear a new single first, a single where he cops to lacking confidence. 

That new single, "i," has already been discussed to death for being "too pop," "too breezy," a sure-fire bet to soundtrack a Disney movie in the next five years. With its shuffling guitar, clopping pots and pans percussion, communal clapping and message of having to love yourself before you can love anyone else, it is poppy and breezy. Those liquid solos you hear in the chorus, pulled from the Isley Brothers' "That Lady," are the sort of thing that would've played in any number of 70s cop flicks. But Kendrick Lamar raps his ass off on this one. With absolute ease he stacks up images of "A war outside and a bomb in the street, and a gun in the hood and a mob of police, And a rock on the corner and a line full of fiends." If that weren't enough to allay fears, his message of loving yourself first isn't new terrain. Since day one he's shown us how far someone can go if they believe in themselves; continually exhorting himself and his audience to go farther. And of course this is just the first taste of what's to come from the third LP. There's a strong chance this is the "radio friendly" track Lamar pushes to make label execs happy before dropping another classic of chaos and confusion in the 21st Century. Whatever the case may be, Lamar can rest easy. The crown's not going anywhere for now.

There's no set release date for Lamar's third LP, but you can watch him discuss the process of recording the new album on Power 106.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

"Blow that s*** away"- Future Islands Live at LouFest

"Sometimes you just gotta blow that s*** away man," Samuel T. Herring, Future Islands' powerhouse vocalist joked to a Sun soaked LouFest crowd Saturday afternoon. As the last notes of "Before the Bridge," a cut from the Baltimore synthpop group's last LP On the Water wafted into the sweat heavy summer air, Herring was blowing some invisible entity out of his hand. With the sheer force he put into puffing out his cheeks, then exhaling, you'd think he was an exorcist trying to cast out a demon.

But that's the intensity the group, particularly Herring approaches all of their material with. During indie song of the year contender "Seasons (Waiting On You)" William Cashion's thick running bass notes created a feeling of a dam bursting fourth; and Herring's "as it breaks" was the first gush of water through the concrete. The song's key line "I've grown tired trying to change for you," affects anyone who's ever lost too much of themselves in another person. And live the emotional relevancy Herring gave the confession was overwhelming.

The Singles lead track was one of several cuts from the 2014 record littering the group's 50 minute set. Gerrit Welmers' tidal synthesizer of "A Song for Our Grandfathers" found Herring looking up to a celestial plateau after each line about "grandfather watching over me." "This song's about burned out tobacco fields and those trying to be free and those that deserve to be," Herring informed the howling, clapping crowd. Whether freedom was ever attained, he never said.

"Light House" considerably picked up the synth pace and offered a shred of life saving hope once imparted on Herring. Though the words "this is not you," and "what you know is better, is brighter" were partially obscured by Herring's black metal shrieking, they still offered inspiration. Sometimes when you're trapped in the shadows all you need is assurance that light is out there somewhere.

Set closer "Spirit" continued the uplifting act. Herring giddily bounced up and down, while the rest of the group gelled into a robotic techno/funk groove. The song's all about finding that aforementioned light inside of yourself and near the end, I spotted a young red-headed child sitting on top of his father's shoulders beaming from ear-to-ear. So as "hokey" a challenge as "sharing" and "baring" the light sounds, when you see the joy of a small child, it's abundantly clear that radiant light exists.

As theatrical as all of the wailing, backwards dancing and pogoing that Herring did was, the most stirring moment came during Singles closer "A Dream of You and Me." Herring begged for peace, but was overcome with violence. He bizarrely contorted across the main stage and pulled at his face like he was trying to rip off a mask. When you're band that thrives on physicality, finding even a shard of peace isn't an easy task. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

"minipops 67 [120.2] [source field mix]"- Aphex Twin

A major mistake I made when listening to "minipops 67 [120.2] [source field mix]," British producer Richard D. James' first new work as Aphex Twin in 13 years, was assuming the stirring vocals that end the song were lifted from some "ancient" source. They're so frail and wobbly that I just imagined James clearing them off a hard-drive labelled "Samples" from the year 2000. 

It's the only thing though from "minipops 67 [120.2] [source field mix] that feels "dated."  The layers of fluttering drum machines, watery synthesizers and stray noises are remarkably of the moment; recalling Aphex Twin disciples like shadowy post dubstep artist Burial and experimental hip hop producer Flying Lotus. James' aforementioned sighing at the song's end could be confused for a new Radiohead effort. Aphex Twin's been dormant since the maligned Drukqs in 2001, but James has clearly been paying attention to his imitators.

So much so that it sounds like he's read ahead of the class. As much as "minipops 67 [120.2] [source field mix] is of 2014, it’s simultaneously out of time. Individual ripples of synth keys are soundtracking a sci-fi flick that won't be made for another 10 years. The robotic heaves throughout the track are alien to my ears. There's no Rosetta Stone to decode the language of James' vocal manipulations. Aphex Twin is unquestionably back and already out in front of the field.

Aphex Twin's new album Syro is out Sept. 23 through Warp Records. You can find James' mangled bio accompanying the new release here and view the tracklist below.

1. "minipops 67 [120.2] [source field mix]"
2. "XMAS_EveT10 (thanaton3 mix)"
3. "produk 29"
4. "4 bit 9d api+e+6"
5. "180db_"
6. "CIRCLONT6A (syrobonkus mix)"
7. "fz pseudotimestrech+e+3"
8. "CIRCLONT14 (shrymoming mix)"
9. "syro u473t8+e (piezoluminescence mix)"
10. "PAPAT4 (pineal mix)"
11. "s950tx16wasr10 (earth portal mix)"
12. "aisatsana"

Friday, August 22, 2014

"From the Kettle Onto the Coil"- Deafheaven

Sunbather, post-black metal group Deafheaven's 2013 release, is a record I still don't understand. I'm familiar with all of the basic elements; convulsive blast beats, throat shredding wails, ascendant post-rock guitars, wide-eyed dream pop interludes, and a populist folk obsession with the wealthy. But just typing that sentence, with all its inherent contradictions, is mind-numbing. How can such beauty and brutality coexist in the same line, let alone the same song? What are you to do with calming silence erupting into cacophonous noise? Is there anything you can do?

Like Sunbather, upcoming Adult Swim single "From the Kettle Onto the Coil" doesn't have answers to those questions. The guttural moans and glass shattering screams from leader George Clarke signify he's in pain, but they're so animalistic and obtuse that interpreting them is impossible. Though it's an unquestionable extreme, he's the friend who says "everything's fine" while dealing with a decaying home life and suicidal thoughts. All you need is to consider the harsh environment created by Daniel Tracy's frenzied drumming and Kerry McCoy's lacerating chords and know everything is not alright.

But of course a big reason for Deafheaven's enormous good will in 2013 came from their ability to make it all seem alright, if only for a moment. On "From the Kettle Onto the Coil" they ease into a passage of exploratory shoegaze after minutes of pummeling metal. When the sheets of noise are peeled back to reveal lush reverb, tranquility is achieved. All the screaming and thumping drums disappear. Peace is rarely permanent though, it's often just a buffer between stretches of violence. So when the brutality returns, it shouldn't come as a shock. Upheaval is a part of life and Deafheaven understand that better than most bands out there right now.

"From the Kettle Onto the Coil" is out Monday on the Adult Swim site.