If one were to look at the data, I wouldn’t be surprised if he or she found a drop in Los Angeles’ menial labor force during the months of October 2006, June 2008, and April 2010. Why? Those are the months Flying Lotus released his first three albums and half of Echo Park decided to buy a synthesizer. Indeed, of the hundreds of beat makers that have emerged over the last five years, it is safe to say that a vast majority would still be working at Home Depot if not for Steven Ellison. Like J Dilla or Madlib before him, FlyLo’s fans became enthralled by his twisted and pot-friendly hip-hop amalgamations and soon after thought to themselves: “I could make beats like that.” One can’t necessarily fault them (his early work does seem relatively simple to the casual listener) but, as it turns out, none of them were right. Some that picked up on his aesthetic have become excellent producers (see Brainfeeder artists and affiliates of Low End Theory) and others, to put it euphemistically, have tried their hand at a noble pursuit; but none have been able to recreate the world that Flying Lotus inhabits.
Stephen Ellison’s background likely plays a role in his uniquely holistic approach to music. A nephew to Alice and John Coltrane and a cousin to Ravi Coltrane, Ellison grew up with an intimate link to magisterial jazz music and psychedelic mysticism. Alice Coltrane was the founder of an ashram and the leader of a non-denominational religious group. Ellison remembers listening to her “40 minute discourses” about God being “within you,” and by the time he was 16 Ellison was having “sleep-paralysis, out-of-body experiences and things like that.” This opened him up to the concept of “mystical states,” and when one combines that with his teenage love for Nintendo and getting baked, it was essentially a foregone conclusion that he would start to construct mind-bending electronic soundscapes. In 2006, Ellison released 1983 via Warp records. While he may not have intended it at the time, his debut almost single-handedly transformed the zeitgeist of Los Angeles’ electronic music scene. It teased out the inclinations for psychedelia, alcohol, and throbbing bass that were swirling around the millennial generation and infused them into potent hip-hop rhythms. From then on, instead of honing in on this original sound, Ellison continued his search for all things striking and spiritual.
His search has led him to Until the Quiet Comes. It is a record that steps slightly back from the brink that was Cosmogramma, digging deep into intimate places rather than constantly thrusting outward. It is not a clean break with his previous work – there is still an unmistakable celestial atmosphere that acts as the foundation for jazzy flourishes and snapping rhythms – but rather it brings together some of his sound’s disparate elements to form a new whole. Until the Quiet Comes picks up on Cosmogramma‘s approach to album construction, which is essentially anti-album. This is not a collection of songs so much as it is a patchwork of different moods, sewn together to form a distorted stream of consciousness. Devoted fans will find plenty of dense arrangements to delve into, but this album might also be the best entrance point for those who have thus far been weary of staring down the rabbit hole. Vocals are prominently employed, and the dystopian electrical onslaught of Cosmagramma is here traded for warm arrangements and psychedelic depth (with the occasional head-snapping beat thrown in). In short, it is not as difficult as some of his other work but it is generally just as rewarding.
The most pervasive aesthetic on the album is a ghostly combination of hip-hop and electronica. “All in,” the albums first track, is thus a fitting introduction. Crunchy synths swirl amongst bass flourishes, snare hits, and angelic melodies that seem to float of their own accord. “Until the Colours Come” and “Heaven” are just as wobbly and gorgeous, but it is “Tiny Tortures” that find’s Ellison at his most affecting. As the deepest of multiple bass layers enters the mix, the keyboard and guitar lines plunge and jerk their way through the tar pit of the lower ranges. The bright sounds eventually make their way to high ground and the arrangement settles into a groove that is as spacious as it is daunting. It induces an almost catatonic state and, like looking at space through a telescope, one isn’t sure whether to be comforted or terrified. Ellison returns to this mode again with short interludes like “Until the Quiet Comes” and “Only if You Wanna” as well as the more sprawling “Hunger.” Thom Yorke makes the already eery “Electric Candyman” even more haunting and Laura Darlington has a similar effect on “Phantasm.” All these tracks are marked by slow gesticulation and hypnotic rhythms and while this is the most fundamental sound on the record it is by no means the only mood that Ellison touches on.
FlyLo is perhaps most revered for his grimy trip-hop anthems. Tunes like “1983,” “Zodiac Shit,” and “Do the Astral Plane” stutter and spit with the kind of fierce energy that so many have tried to emulate. But as Ellison has mentioned, it’s not just about having an off-kilter rhythm. It’s the depth of sound and focus on composition that makes FlyLo’s bangers so distinct. Case in point, “Getting There.” The drums are viciously engineered but instead of being left stranded as the focal point of the sound (which most producers end up doing) they are supplemented by a shifting haze of chimes, synths, and dreamy vocals. “Sultan’s Request,” while entirely different in approach, is also striking in the way it’s arranged. The fierce opening synth washes suggest a brooding electronic onslaught but the upper register melodies slowly work their way into the track. Things could have simply continued in that vein, but instead Ellison changes direction and drops an intensely guttural bass line. He makes a similar turn “my Yesterday//Corded” as the slow-burning atmosphere of the first half gives way to a cosmic trip-hop beat. One might fault Ellison’s arrangements for being spastic, but that sense of unpredictability is the beating heart of his music.
Some of the albums tracks don’t quite fit into the categories that have been discussed, but that is just another indication of FlyLo’s surprise! approach to beat making. “See Through To U” and “DMT Song” are the jazziest compositions on an album that otherwise draws surprisingly little from that genre. Erykah Badu brings a seductive energy to the former and Thundercat’s lovely croon makes “DMT Song” both a little odd and undeniably lovely. Then there is “The Nightcaller,” a discoed out funk jam that sounds something like Dam-Funk on shrooms. Sure, it comes out of left field. But it feels like an appropriate tangent within an album that is based on visiting a whole host of aural environments while staying rooted in a fundamental flow.
In direct comparison with Cosmogramma, Until the Quiet Comes might seem wispy at times – perhaps in need of less mood and more convolution. There is something to be said for that but there is also a distinct comfort to this album that has thus far been absent from Ellison’s work. It is intermittently energizing and hypnotic; spiritual and industrial; dense and spacious. But in the end, as “Dream to Me” begins to fade out, one can’t help but feel a sense of peace. Adroitly handling those rapid pivots in style is what makes Flying Lotus a pioneer; and it’s what makes the majority of the electronic beat scene stand contentedly in his shadow. [A-]
FULL STREAM: FLYING LOTUS – UNTIL THE QUIET COMES