Album Review: Flying Lotus – Until The Quiet Comes

[Warp; 2012]

The Journey is a constant fixation in Steve Ellison’s work. On Ellison’s debut as Flying Lotus, 1983, the journey was temporal, on its followup, Los Angeles, it was geographical, and on 2010’s Cosmogramma, the voyage was cosmic as well as out-and-out musical. It’s, of course, the subtext of these little jaunts that make them so potent. 1983 is the year Steve Ellison was born, Los Angeles is where his musical and personal identity is rooted, and “Cosmogramma” is a reference to Ellison’s aunt and astral jazz pioneer Alice Coltrane, who’s seemingly had a profound influence on the producer’s life and work.

It goes deeper than that, however. Since Los Angeles and particularly with Cosmogramma, the journey has taken on the shape of the archetypical, mythological journey within the self and Flying Lotus’s destinations have grown increasingly probing, explorative, and revelatory. Los Angeles sought to trace the outline of a place Ellison had known his whole life, unearthing the emotions invested and buried beneath its surface and musically capturing his own perspective on and experience in the titular city. Cosmogramma reached back into the colossal legacy of Flying Lotus’ familial lineage, the producer feeling his way through the cosmic jazz and spiritual foundations laid by his aunt and uncle and finding his own place therein. Until The Quiet Comes, Ellison’s fourth record, turns its focus even deeper and more directly inward. Flying Lotus has described the album as a “collage of mystical states, dreams, sleep and lullabies.” The journey lies in the subconscious.

Cosmogramma not only marked a subject shift for Flying Lotus, but a significant musical one as well. It arrived on the heels of an album that spawned more direct copycats than Burial’s Untrue and somehow outpaced the ever-looming, ever-growing shadow of Los Angeles ten times over, leaving any unsolicited disciples in a stunned, fumbling silence. Cosmogramma obtained a kind of post-everything status and Flying Lotus was firmly entrenched in ain’t-never-been-done-before territory. The record was a nebulous patchwork of sample-based vignettes, re-contextualizing avant jazz in the image of Ellison’s maximalist take on dance music and hip-hop, traveling deep within the psyche of his own creation and back out again.

It’s going to take longer to process Cosmogramma than the time Ellison gave us. With the impending arrival of Until The Quiet Comes, scheduled to release just a hair over two years later, certain questions arose. Namely, how the hell was Flying Lotus going to follow up a masterpiece of once-in-a-lifetime proportions? The proximity of the two albums seemed rash. Cosmogramma was a Since I Left You or Loveless. If Ellison needed a decade to build something worthy to follow, it would have been understandable. The obvious answer to the question was that he wouldn’t try to top Cosmogramma. That whatever we got would sit comfortably next to Los Angeles at best, and at worst would still put a revolving door of promising guests to use. Instead, Until The Quiet Comes sees Ellison outdistancing himself yet again.

With UTQC, it’s clear that Ellison wasn’t intent simply building upon what he’d achieved with Cosmogramma — or with Cosmogramma, build on what he’d achieved with Los Angeles. No, he dialed things back to zero, bringing with him what he’d learned and built from there instead. Jazz seemed to become apart of Flying Lotus’ lifeblood after Cosmogramma, and it’s hardly absent from Until The Quiet Comes (no brass or woodwinds, though), but Ellison has turned to the sounds of pop, soul, fusion, and psychedelia from the 1960s and ’70s for inspiration and re-contextualized them within a framework that has little to do with beat music anymore. These sounds and aesthetics aren’t so much culled from sessions of retroactive cherry picking, nor are they even sampled to recreate the specific moods and sounds of a bygone era, but rather crafted firsthand and used conceptually to the ends of a kind of modern classical vein. Much in the way Steve Reich employed repetition, or John Cage employed silence.

Flying Lotus’ conceptions aren’t so grand as to play with the very fundamentals of music. Instead, UTQC is a testament to imagination and vision and the capabilities of the human soul by way of music. That might all sound a little overwrought, and these qualities arguably reside at the very center of art and music anyway, but it’s more than rare to feel like they mean something tangible and vital to the music itself; that the musician at his core is only a hand’s breadth away. UTQC feels so specific to its creator that the sounds that lie within go beyond a certain era’s sonic touchstones and are instead mined from where they reside within the creator himself. The subconscious is the focus here, after all. It’s true soul music.

The musical shifts from Cosmogramma lie in Ellison’s reliance on live instrumentation; it’s hard to even tell what might be sampled and what might not. It ultimately doesn’t matter. Bassist extraordinaire, Thundercat, off his excellent 2011 solo debut, The Golden Age Of Apocalypse, which was produced by FlyLo, can be heard on most of UTQC, with a vocal appearance arriving near the record’s middle, and if all the guitar here resulted from the much talked about collaboration with Johnny Greenwood, then the Radiohead multi-instrumentalist spent more than his fair share of time in the studio with Ellison.

Yet, Thundercat’s constant presence is only telling of what the collaborations and use of instrumentation really mean on UTQC. Cosmogramma was alight with a competing storm of squalling synth textures, plucky stringed samples, and, often, atonal virtuoso jazz instrumentation. And when Ravi Coltrane was shredding his horn to bits, you stopped and took note of it. Cosmogramma still worked within Flying Lotus’ leftfield hip-hop mold, a highly sophisticated, library music-eque variation of it to be sure, but it all still sounded cut up and looped and manually toiled with and pieced together after the fact like a found-sound, jazz-beat collage. The ground Ellison breaks on UTQC is in stepping outside of that realm entirely into something altogether new and transcendent unto itself. Live instrumentation is woven into the very fabric of UTQC, blurring the lines between electronics, production, and live arrangement until the framework is completely its own behemoth. Flying Lotus isn’t so much toying with these sounds from afar but submerging himself within them. Yet, somehow, the man’s presence as producer and conductor is more apparent than ever and his purposeful sense of design is astonishing to witness.

UTQC is profoundly more accessible and immediate than Cosmogramma. Ellison guides things with a more patient and restrained hand. Much of FlyLo’s more combative 16-bit screams, virtuoso maximalist synth volleys, and throttling, high-energy beat structures have been gutted, the focus instead on a deeper and wider sense of sound and subtler sense of motion. Cosmogramma could often feel claustrophobic, impenetrable, and pulverizing, its quieter moments functioning as cathartic respites whereas UTQC is cavernous, lush, and vast, its farthest reaches hard to make out even. UTQC is full of warm, subterranean orchestral instruments, pulsar percussive textures, glittering keys, hushed vocals, and distant cozy synth warbles. Even at its most upbeat, the album feels driven by a serene, submerged calm that’s rarely been part of FlyLo’s repertoire.

The album’s holistic sequencing still makes more of an impression than its individual songs, even if there are more standouts than even on Los Angeles. There’s a genuine ebbing pace that feels its way from one track the next, sonic tides coming together and dispersing and coming together again, arranged appropriately like restless dream patterns and motifs. And with such specific, three-dimensional aesthetics and instrumentation at work UTQC creates one of the most striking and organic musical atmospheres ever crafted. It’s a more inviting space to inhabit, to say the least, and the mood of unconscious travel is immediately perceptible.

The journey begins with “All In,” which, even at less than two and a half minutes, is some of the most beautiful music Ellison has ever produced. The song is a flood of chewy electric bass and twinkling keys wrapped around the track’s core in tactile rivulets, a chorus of wordless voices “ohh”-ing from far below and a pounding kick rattling the earth before the rise of a string section washes in like the gaseous tide on the shores of some distant nubula. Vocalist, Niki Randa follows it with a gorgeous feature on “Getting There,” the residual hints of “All In” coalescing around a meat-on-bone kick and gaining new heights chasing after Randa’s tearful, demigoddess vocal. The record bounces between Herbie Hancock, Jefferson Airplane, Stereolab, and Jerry Goldsmith pulsing out in gentle echoing, pollen tendrils of guitar (“Tiny Tortures”) and knobby jeweled keys (“Heave(n)”) until it gets to “All The Secrets.” Things contract in scale, alternating between bass-heavy synth compositions, fluttering sample and percussion mosaics, and the spindly, tribal jazz of the Erykah Badu-led “See Thru To You.”

UTQC‘s centerpiece is the the one-two of “DMT” and “The Nightcaller.” The record splays out into a formless canvas of star-shine ambiance, Thundercat’s milky tenor rising into a chorused falsetto. “The Nightcaller” takes over with some fossil-pop “bum-bum-bum”s, dropping into analog, 4/4 driven, cosmic telewarp handclap techno, laserbeam synths arcing through a dogfight between Thundercat’s bass and an acrobatic, amoebic cello. The Thom Yorke-featuring “Electric Candyman” opens the proceedings wide again, little noxious specter drones and a rattling, horseshoe drum sample wafting around the distant, nightmarish coos of the Radiohead frontman. Starting with another appearance from Niki Randa on “Hunger” things settle into a kind of contemplative, restless peace as if the long road searching for answers has given way to resigned internal calm and quieted free fall full of shivering, ghostly stringed instruments and downbeat vocal gasps until “me Yesterday//Corded” explodes with a deluge of golden arpeggios, winding bass grooves, and an all-consuming chorus of voices, the journey finally stumbling upon its final, gazing-into-the-eyes-of-God revelation. But then closer “Dream To Me,” a pool of overlapping synths, signals a rise to wakefulness, the momentary answers at the end of the unconscious trek caught in the receding tides of sleep.

In a very real sense, Ellison has been constructing his own library of personal myths. What is Los Angeles to me? Where do I fit into this musical legacy? Who am I? Myth exists in the realm of emotional truths and subjective absolutes, human kind trying to find its place in the universe, working on a scale where the facts are beyond literal comprehension. No one’s asking bigger questions of himself  or more from himself in music than Flying Lotus is. These records are the only appropriate answers and Until The Quiet Comes is his most accomplished yet.