It's Prog Jim, But Not As We Know It: Flying Lotus

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Put down the pitchforks.

Extinguish those flaming torches. Disperse the lynch mobs. Or, at the very least, cancel letters demanding the staff of Prog resign en masse. I say this in anticipation of the reaction to this column’s selection of You’re Dead!, an album steeped in hip-hop and featuring rap superstars Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg.

Flying Lotus, aka Steven Ellison, proves that hip-hop and prog needn’t be mutually exclusive. For starters, Ellison describes his sixth album as “heavy on the prog vibes”. He also cites Crimson, Floyd, Queen, Weather Report, and Soft Machine as influences on this heavily instrumental record.

Ellison wrote You’re Dead! in response to the death of his mother and, more recently, 22-year-old piano prodigy Austin Peralta. The result is a concept album about a journey into the afterlife. (Shintaro Kago’s inner-sleeve artwork depicts a cartoon junkyard of twisted human bodies in Hades. It looks like a manga version of a Hieronymus Bosch painting.) For a record about the great beyond, the music is fittingly otherworldly.

It starts out like a 21st century mash-up of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi. Indeed, Hancock guests on the record. On Tesla, a regular Flying Lotus collaborator named Thundercat spindles nimble bass lines over jazz drummer Gene Coye’s fast shuffle. Hancock finds space above the fray, each note from his Fender Rhodes keyboard glittering like an icicle melting in the sun.

Before now, Ellison hadn’t displayed an overt jazz sensibility. His breakthrough Flying Lotus album, Cosmogramma (2010), melded hip-hop grooves with experimental electronica and boasted a guest vocal by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. Yet jazz has been a formative part of Ellison’s life. After all, his great aunt was pianist and harpist Alice Coltrane, wife of saxophone legend John Coltrane. Ellison has now taken his ancestral music and elevated it beyond mere pastiche by including his own signature modern sounds.

On Turkey Dog Coma, for instance, Kamasi Washington’s tenor sax spirals in ribbons around synthetic beats and real drums. During Siren Song, Brendon Small sounds as if he’s playing guitar in zero gravity, each note floating in blissful slow-motion. Elsewhere, guest rappers Lamar and Dogg mull the literal and metaphorical meanings of death amid

a blend of jazz and hip-hop.

You’re Dead! was one of 2014’s most critically acclaimed releases. By turns ethereal and earthy, it’s a genuinely progressive album that implores listeners to get busy living.