Until the Quiet Comes, Keep Listening to FlyLo

Adam Hirsch

It’s funny how we talk about music. We use this one word to encompass an entire universe of sounds which exist independently of one another, taking shapes that are not only different in content but also context. Differences in sounds are almost always accompanied by differences in historical background, audience and the location in which the art develops; because musical sounds manifest in such infinite situations, we insist on dividing them into copious amounts of categories and genres, yet we still assert at the end of the day that we can put all the sounds of a romantic orchestra, a disco club, and a contact mic scratching against a dinner plate under the singular umbrella of music. The fact that we can feel comfortable using the term so freely is not the result of any sort of discourse on the word and its meaning — in fact, our liberal use of the word is hardly ever talked about. What really allows us to hold such a wide-ranging approach to the musical universe is the artists that fuse together these disparate sounds, and reassure us that all forms of good music are not really all that different. One such artist in today’s landscape is Los Angeles native Steven Ellison, aka Flying Lotus, who has just released his most dynamic and far-reaching record to date, Until the Quiet Comes.

Flying Lotus — or FlyLo, as his fans endearingly call him — began his career among the group of Los Angeles producers that followed in the footsteps of the late J Dilla, making instrumental hip-hop with an off-kilter lilt, diving deep into the possibilities of beat music and the particular musicality it has to offer the genre of electronic music as a whole. In the mid-2000s he garnered a hefty local following with a slew of Dilla-style beat tapes, leading to his label debut in 2006 with Plug Research’s 1983, an adventure in tripped-out breakbeats, dusty drum samples and 8-bit synths. His debut on Warp Records in 2008 with Los Angeles explores a similar but more atmospheric landscape, and its darkly mesmerizing textures earned him national attention among beat enthusiasts. By the release of Cosmogramma in 2010, FlyLo had essentially started a movement; not only had he created Brainfeeder — his own record label and army of musical comrades — but his music had also transcended its own boundaries. Cosmogramma’s extensive use of instrumental arrangements, abstract sound paintings, and unimaginably deep grooves drew enormous praise from beatheads, jazz musicians, contemporary composers and techno fans alike. Since then, Ellison has performed internationally with orchestral groups and jazz ensembles, and has produced music for rappers, R&B singers, films, cartoons and abstract art installations. His music spread in all directions at once, and all anyone could say was: What’s next?

At long last, Flying Lotus has delivered the highly anticipated Until the Quiet Comes on Warp Records to an eagerly awaiting global audience and if you didn’t think it was possible, Ellison has expanded his style even further, absorbing both old and new sounds. Ellison called Cosmogramma his “jazz” record — it contains repeated nods to his late family members John and Alice Coltrane — but Quiet seems to explore the jazz idiom on an even deeper level. From the cosmic synth sounds of “Heave(n)” and the modal keyboard harmonies of “Until the Colours Come” to the laid-back swing of “Only if You Wanna” and the virtuosic bass runs of the title track, this music at times recalls the sound of both ’60s Blue Note classics and the free jazz of Sun Ra and Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band. Ellison also employs highly modernist production techniques, creating sounds that one would expect to find in the electronic music of Karlheinz Stockhausen or other avant-garde composers; “Tiny Tortures,” for instance, is composed of a collection of small glitch noises arranged into a dizzying beat sequence, and the frantic first minute of bleeps and bumps in “All the Secrets” is almost impossible to fit into any sort of metered rhythm.

While forging deep into areas of musical complexity and abstraction, the record also goes in the opposite direction by indulging (and indulging oh-so sweetly) in club energy and dance music sensibilities. Ellison seems to be interested in drawing on ideas from very recent musical developments in the beat world, and particularly from trap music, swag-rap, the post-dubstep movement and the Detroit techno revival. Although the influence of these musics is apparent, Ellison’s personal stamp is always present in his appropriation of ideas. These vacillations between influence and personality sometimes even take the form of musical jokes: the four-on-the-floor synth grooves of “The Nightcaller” are an obvious Detroit house imitation, but at the moment of the crowd-pleasing “drop” after a breakdown and buildup, Ellison surprises the listener by dropping a fuzzed-out hip-hop beat that is laughable in its sudden alignment with his old production style and its neck-breaking contrast to the rest of the song.

As he did on Cosmogramma, Ellison employs the help of instrumentalists, vocalists and composers as guests on the record — but this time, the size and breadth of the group of performers reaches further, making the album sound like more of a collective effort. In addition to bringing back former guests such as vocalists Laura Darlington and Thom Yorke, bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner and string arranger/performer Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, Ellison enlists the lyrical stylings of Erykah Badu and Niki Randa, the virtuosity of heavy jazz names like Austin Peralta, Jean Coy and Brandon Coleman, and the composition help of Radiohead member Jonny Greenwood and fellow beatsmith Sam Baker (aka Samiyam). It is ultimately the contributions of these collaborators that really give shape to the record and help to blend different types of music within one fluid experience.

However, this is also strangely the source of some of the record’s shortcomings; the disparate musical offerings of all these personalities can make the album feel somewhat disjointed despite its collaborative spirit. At certain points, Until the Quiet Comes seems to fail in existing as a singular album, or as a collection of tracks that flow seamlessly within a continuous aesthetic or concept. So many identities and ideas are present in the music that a listener might reconsider the validity of using the title of one man as the album’s artist. The liner notes list no less than nine different people with composer credits. Regardless, these musings seem like a small price to pay in the face of what Flying Lotus is actually accomplishing for his genre, and for the modern music climate as a whole. In a corporate culture that seems to divide music more and more every day with genre labels and demographic marketing, bringing together different ideas and presenting them as one artistic product is more desperately important than it seems. It seems that if we really hope to approach music with open ears and minds, it must be viewed as a holistic enterprise, and a challenge to blend traditions, histories and sounds day after day until the day it all falls silent.