Over the past couple years, it’s suddenly felt like the global music scene has fully begun to see the influence of Gorillaz’s ubiquity within CD binders in the early-’00s—rap all sounds like rock now, rock all sounds like rap, and both of those genres have been sidelined by a secret third thing that seamlessly combines the two in new and surprising ways. Which probably made isomonstrosity’s mission for their self-titled debut all the more difficult. “One goal I personally had with isomonstrosity was to create new music—organized sound that hadn't been heard by the world before,” explains the project’s Yuga Cohler. “It was very important that our creation process was oriented around an environment of novelty.”
Cohler, a Juilliard-trained orchestral conductor, not only teamed up with all-star pop and hip-hop producer Jonah Lenox and Pulitzer-winning composer Ellen Reid for the new project, but the trio also sprinkled their highly experimental, minimalist-art-pop tracklist with familiar voices upping the release’s novelty—including Danny Brown, Empress Of, Vic Mensa, Kacy Hill, Tommy Genesis, hyperpop maestro Danny L. Harle, and Kendrick Lamar collaborator Zacari—who help to drag its genre tags in nearly contradictory directions. The result is an impressive feat: “careful what you wish for” is the strangest beat I’ve heard Danny rap over all year—I feel like that alone certainly counts for something.
By sharing a playlist of influences, we get a glimpse into the trio’s minds as the record came together, with the ambient electronic soundscapes of Kid A–era Radiohead, the unpredictable beat changes of Travis Scott, and a mutual love for experimental Italian composer Luciano Berio grounding an otherwise ethereal work (all three also interestingly choose Kendrick verses from different years). Before their self-titled debut drops this Friday, read more on their inspirations below.
Radiohead, “Everything in Its Right Place”
This track has always haunted me as one of the best musical examples of the curse of the ineffable in the modern era. By this I mean: not having the tools to express what you're feeling, despite (or perhaps because of) all of the technological advances at our fingertips—a la Hal Incandenza from Infinite Jest. This condition of modernity is something that influenced a lot of my thought on isomonstrosity—the terror of being alone despite being more connected than ever.
Flying Lotus feat. Kendrick Lamar, “Never Catch Me”
I love how Flying Lotus projects don't have any boundaries in terms of the artistic disciplines and materials it draws from. The music video, directed by Hiro Murai, is a masterpiece, and shows how poignant something based on a simple piano loop can be.
Thomas Adès, “Asyla”
One goal I personally had with isomonstrosity was to create new music—organized sound that hadn't been heard by the world before. I think this is getting rarer and rarer by the day, so it was very important that our creation process was oriented around an environment of novelty. “Asyla” is a piece of music that I continuously return to for this freshness—especially the third movement, “Ecstasio”—because it has no rhythmic, harmonic, or melodic constraints relative to the context it is situated in.
Kendrick Lamar feat. Zacari, “LOVE.”
When DAMN. won the Pulitzer Prize for Music (generally an award for classical composition) it started a lot of interesting conversations in the classical music community about what a composer even is. If we can recognize Kendrick's compositional prowess for his work wrangling the talents of many producers, songwriters, and musicians into a single cohesive piece, why aren't more classical composers trying to work with this method? I think that idea really was the driving question behind isomonstrosity. I chose this song because of Zacari's jagged vocal performance, which has always captured my imagination, and having worked with him a bit already, I was excited to ask him to sing something for this project.
Travis Scott, “Sicko Mode”
Travis obviously didn't invent the idea of a beat switch-up, but I still think there was something cool about hearing a song on the radio every day that changed tempo and key so dramatically in the middle. I saw other artists build on that format in the year or two after it came out, but I don't know if we've seen another massive hit that did it since then. This song definitely gave me hope that we can continue to see more unique or interesting structural features in major pop songs and was definitely a source of confidence for us that there are rap fans out there who will happily take on the kind of constantly evolving and even disjointed music that we ultimately made here.
Berio, “Sinfonia” (3rd and 4th movements especially)
This is probably the clearest antecedent to our album from within the classical repertoire. This piece essentially quotes and “mashes up” excerpts of pre-existing music, especially from Mahler, as part of its constantly evolving journey. Sonically I think this piece was in the back of our minds a bit when we made this, and there's no question that this is one of the most important tentpoles in classical music history representing the idea that “composition” can include reworking or combining other people's work (something pop and hip-hop producers are doing intuitively all the time). One difference, however, is that any music we “quoted” in our piece was actually written from scratch specifically for our project—there's no pre-existing repertoire to keep your ears open for when listening—but our method of stitching musical fragments together into something new still owes a lot to this Berio piece.
Ellen Reid, “p r i s m / Act I: Lost In The Blue”
I wanted to include something from our fellow collaborator Ellen Reid in here, and I think this excerpt from her opera p r i s m is just a beautiful example of her writing and I can definitely hear in it some of the lush, sweeping, and rich harmonic moments that she brought to her synth work on our song “I Used To” featuring Kacy Hill. I don't know if that makes it an “influence” exactly, but it's been fun going back to the music from all of our composers after having spent months in the weeds working with their music and hear some of the ideas they've been working with in the years leading up to their work with us on this album.
Kentrick Lamar, “u”
“u” opens with a visceral scream by Lamar. This guttural vocalization is related to the scream in a hotel room that we hear throughout To Pimp a Butterfly. Lamar's scream is one thread that ties this brilliant album together. The theatricality, rawness, and effectiveness of “u” gets me every time. With isomonstrosity, we looked for sonic elements that could weave throughout the entire album to create a sense of cohesion and evoke the emotions we were all feeling in isolation.
Like Johan, I'm going to have to say Berio's “Sinfonia.” This work was central in our discussions. The work creates something wholly new by collaging existing work. The effect of Berio's collage is wildly different than any of the pieces on their own. The juxtapositioning of the existing works creates friction and a sense of a dreamlike vertigo. Berio's “Sinfonia” was a major inspiration for isomonstrosity.