Flying Lotus @ Music Hall of Williamsburg | 10/16/14
“I regret to inform you all that you’re dead.”
This sentence does not fall within the realm of typical things artists say to the crowd at the start of a show. But for Flying Lotus, AKA Steven Ellison, it was all part of a plan to immerse the audience in an exploratory death-centric trip. A second after uttering his declaration, Ellison flipped on a mask with glowing orbs for eyes and filled Music Hall of Williamsburg with the video-game-doom sounds of his new album’s opening track.
You’re Dead! is a 36-minute embodiment of the L.A. producer’s imagined responses to death and dying: adrenaline, anxiety, fear, peace. It’s a mixed bag of an album, deeply rooted in jazz (Ellison happens to be the nephew of the legendary Alice Coltrane and John Coltrane, cousin of Ravi), and features cameos from Herbie Hancock, Snoop Dogg, and Kendrick Lamar. You’ll likely only notice the death concept it if you’ve heard the backstory, but if you have, you’ll interpret every song through its lens.
FlyLo’s “You’re Dead! Tour” totally ditches the album’s relative subtlety. Generously, he gives his listeners two ways to experience the intended death-contemplation act: in a gentle-yet-deep way when listening to the record, and in a sensory-overload manner live. Two very different experiences, both incredibly powerful. There’s a reason Flying Lotus sold out two New York City shows and earned the title of “composer” in a recent New York Times article—he doesn’t throw mindless beats at the crowd and call it a day.
You know that scene in Willy Wonka in the Chocolate Factory in which Wonka takes his guests on a boat ride through a tunnel and it seems like a psychedelic trip gone wrong? Wonka sings nonsense lyrics at them; all sorts of terrifying images appear on the walls. Flying Lotus goes for a similar effect on this tour. He stands between two massive translucent screens and works his MacBook magic while intense, hypnotic projections create a show of their own around him.
The visuals are death-themed, of course: illustrations of naked people falling from the sky, animations of crawling bugs, creepy-looking blobs that I personally thought resembled the Ebola virus. Pair this with the insanely loud volume of his show—bass so heavy you could feel it rattling your bones—and you have the ultimate immersive experience, an audio-video assault of all things death-related. True to the varied moods on the album, not all of the art was scary: there were many spiritual, outer-space oriented visuals too, which conjured the feeling of flying through giant kaleidoscopes of the cosmos while listening to FlyLo’s futuristic beats.
An artist of many talents, FlyLo briefly emerged from behind his screen to rap a few songs, a highlight being “Dead Man’s Tetris,” his duet with Snoop. At this point a robed actor wearing a Grim Reaper mask and holding a scythe emerged on stage. The Reaper momentarily lingered on the side of the stage like a hallucination and proceeded to hang around for the rest of the show. He slowly made his way through the crowd, pointing and staring at individual audience members and occasionally resting a bony hand on random shoulders. No one really knew how to react to the presence of the Reaper and his uncomfortable stares, but some people tried to take selfies with him, and he obliged. Others stared right back at him.
Lest the death theme get too overwhelming, Flying Lotus granted periodic reprieves by diving into older, less intense and more dance-friendly, material. “Putty Boy Strut” and “Zodiac Shit” loosened up the crowd, who, for most of the show, smoked and bobbed their heads—not your usual electronic music scene. “I knew this would happen. I’d come to Williamsburg and everyone would be too cool,” FlyLo joked. “It’s OK to clap!”
Snippets from “Never Catch Me,” the haunting standout track from You’re Dead! featuring Kendrick Lamar, closed out the hour-long set. As the crowd came alive to the song’s furious bass line, Flying Lotus emerged from behind his screen to wave goodbye to the audience. For all the death meditation that night, FlyLo departed with a very present message as a sea of iPhones snapped his picture. “We don’t need photos,” he said, “let’s live in the moment.”
(Image courtesy Jurriaan Persyn via Flickr)