Wednesday, October 31, 2012
ALBUM REVIEW: Flying Lotus - Until the Quiet Comes
Recommended by Danny Spiteri.
Before I begin, I'd like to communicate just how much Flying Lotus's music means to me. My introduction to him came about via late night television block Adult Swim, who often uses his music as the soundtrack to the bumpers they air between shows and commercials. It was 2008, shortly after his Los Angeles LP was released, and at fourteen years old, I was but a budding music nerd, ignorant to the wider world of independent music outside of a small handful of artists to whom I devoted my fanaticism. The existence of the blogosphere was completely unbeknownst to me, so I relied on a limited set of sources to discover music, one of the most pivotal being Adult Swim. My foray into their repertoire, which was aided heavily by this website's extensive archival, opened me up to a wide array of electronic and hip hop artists, spanning the rosters of a handful of established independent labels. The most notable of which was Warp Records, home to electronic music pioneers such as Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin, Autechre, Squarepusher, Prefuse 73, Clark, and of course, Flying Lotus. My newfound fascination with these artists marked two landmark changes I made in my listening habits: expanding my focus to a wide variety of artists rather than obsessing over a few, and allowing independent electronic music to become my genre of choice. And yet, in spite of my enlarged attention span, I found it difficult not to obsess over Flying Lotus, the artist most responsible for sparking this transition in me. His strikingly original and experimental yet emotionally relatable approach to electronic music made a profound impact on me then, and it continues to resonate with me today. He is my favorite artist of all time, and accordingly, there will be an inevitable strain of bias running throughout this review.
Steven Ellison has been releasing full-length albums as Flying Lotus on a two year clock since 2006, birth year of his debut for Plug Research, 1983. Comparatively to the albums that would follow, 1983 was somewhat embryonic. Not quite as distinctive or sonically dense as the producer's definitive work, it also is currently his shortest and most disjointed LP, often feeling like a canvas for him to toy with his influences without fully developing his ideas. Despite that, 1983 is still a great record, housing some of Flying Lotus's most captivating songs, such as the melodically potent title track and the Tito Puente-sampling "Unexpected Delight," which features the vocal talents of common FlyLo guest Laura Darlington, and laying the foundation for what would evolve into a more multifaceted, unparalleled sound.
It was Flying Lotus's next full-length excursion, Los Angeles, that catapulted him to transcendent levels. With its astonishingly intricate layering, top-notch production, stimulating off-kilter rhythms, imaginative sampling, emotionally affecting composition, and cohesive presentation, Los Angeles is nothing short of a masterpiece in my own eyes. From the shimmering synthesizers that open with "Brainfeeder" to the heated percussive exercise of "Melt!," from the upbeat and danceable "Parisian Goldfish" to the gorgeously minimal beauty of closer and Laura Darlington feature "Auntie's Lock/Infinitum," and throughout everything in between, Los Angeles gracefully exhibits a wide range in creative perspective, nailing a wealth of brilliant ideas with staggering precision. Although I don't deny the possibility of FlyLo releasing something that removes it from this perch, it now stands firmly as my favorite release in the Flying Lotus discography.
Whereas Los Angeles was Flying Lotus's breakthrough record, 2010's Cosmogramma is his most popular. Arguably more ambitious than its predecessor, Cosmogramma marked the introduction of FlyLo's incorporation of heavy influences from the world of jazz. His addition of Stephen Bruner, a.k.a. Thundercat, as a frequent collaborator factored in highly melodic bass lines, which worked in conjunction with the chords Flying Lotus was borrowing from jazz. The electronic nature of his music was still at its core, however, often taking on an even more maximalistic form than his previous work, such as with tracks like the abrupt opener "Clock Catcher" and the cinematic "Galaxy in Janaki." I find Cosmogramma to be slightly less consistent than Los Angeles, but it also reaches highs that are among the highest Flying Lotus has ever achieved, including the somewhat celebratory "Computer Face // Pure Being," the danceable "Do the Astral Plane" and the thrilling build its string and horn section help execute, the continuation of winning Laura Darlington contributions in "Table Tennis," and the euphoric finish of the aforementioned "Galaxy in Janaki."
Until the Quiet Comes is only Flying Lotus's fourth LP, but considering the multitude of EPs, demos, bootlegs, and mixes he has under his belt, it's far from being his fourth statement. His earliest demos, such as July Heat and Demo 06, were not particularly challenging, and yet despite not doing much to distinguish themselves from other post-J Dilla instrumental hip hop, they were still among the most interesting of such peers. 2007's Reset EP was a moderately moody, wonderful precursor to Los Angeles that packaged some of his most powerful work, particularly the breathtaking "Massage Situation." The L.A. EP trilogy that followed Los Angeles featured both original material that functioned as an excellent afterthought to the LP and remixes from other artists that offered it refreshing new perspectives. Between the first and second of those EPs came Shhh!, a collection of six reinterpretations of songs ranging from Madvillain's "Shadows of Tomorrow" to Nelly Furtado and Timbaland's "Promiscuous." The Pattern+Grid World EP that followed Cosmogramma is FlyLo's most frantic release yet, producing some of his most stimulating moments with highlights like the 8-bit exploration "Kill Your Co-Workers" and the driving "Physics for Everyone!" This is all in addition to a wealth of other singles, demos, and unofficially released material that rest under FlyLo's belt, most of which range from solid to incredible, and almost always carrying the sonic qualities that make his music so distinguishable.
After a quiet 2011, Flying Lotus has returned with Until the Quiet Comes, the full-length successor to Cosmogramma. Following such an album is a difficult task for a number reasons. Of course, the overwhelmingly positive reception of Cosmogramma creates heightened expectations around subsequent material, which places even more importance on the display of progression between releases. Considering the voluminous form that record took on, it seems that FlyLo's only choice in making his next move was to head in a more subdued direction. Until the Quiet Comes is still denser than much contemporary electronic music, but unlike with past material, its sonic focus is centered less around barrages of sound and more around smooth, pretty textures. Paring back volume doesn't come at a cost of personality, fortunately, for Flying Lotus's penchant for exploration keeps the album feeling like new ground for the artist. Although atmosphere has always been a crucial element of FlyLo's music, taking a relatively soft approach allows him to bring forth his often latent ambient side, at times surpassing the standards set by most of his previous flirtations with predominantly atmosphere-driven work. The brief yet stunningly beautiful "Until the Colours Come," for example, could be compared to Los Angeles cut "Orbit 405" or perhaps Cosmogramma piece "Intro / A Cosmic Drama" in their similar track lengths and absence of percussion, but the former, though it does function well as an interlude, also succeeds not only as a standalone track, but as one of the most affecting on the LP as well.
This emphasis on space carries over into most of the percussive songs, but although the sounds are consistently magnificent, the songs themselves produce somewhat mixed results. Structurally speaking, a portion of these tracks plateau early, shifting different components without a particularly strong sense of direction. Both "All the Secrets" and opener "All In" hold impressive shares of interesting ideas, but they also meander in a way that prevents their potential from being fully realized. Lack of clear aim in such tracks is a minor issue when considering that the bulk of the record was constructed to act primarily as a series of mood pieces, though the few "bangers" that appear also suffer slightly from underwhelming form. The most notable example is "The Nightcaller," which both in vibe and placement on the album's timeline recall Los Angeles's "Parisian Goldfish" and Cosmogramma's "Do the Astral Plane" without approaching the jubilant emotional heights of either. The other two relatively urgent tracks, "Sultan's Request" and "Putty Boy Strut," are more successful, the former on the strength of its thick bass and immediate melodies, and the latter by way of its infectious vocal samples, though they do feel just slightly undercooked. This less defined manner of arrangement bothers me less as I become more comfortable accepting that Until the Quiet Comes isn't a linear extension of preceding Flying Lotus material, but I still can't help but feel that a handful of these songs could use more developed structures.
A few of the lead melodies are alienating as well, particularly those contributed by certain guest vocalists. Thom Yorke feature "Electric Candyman" is one of the most cerebral songs Until the Quiet Comes has to offer, and in contrast to his appearance on Cosmogramma's "...And the World Laughs With You," places his vocals in a comparatively obscure place. While his ghostly voice and the treatment Flying Lotus applies to it works especially well with the song's creeping aura, the notes he sings don't add up to anything markedly striking. Similarly abstract is the first half of the following track, the Niki Randa collaboration "Hunger," which could benefit from a sharpened melody, though it ultimately does succeed on the strength of the mind-bending soundscape it creates. The only real pothole on the record is "See Thru to U," which gives Erykah Badu the spotlight as lead vocalist. Although I appreciate Erykah Badu for her understated yet passionate delivery, I find her melodies on that track to be almost completely inconsequential. Backed by appealing organic percussion that drowns at the hand of a messy instrumental, "See Thru to U," though not remotely offensive, feels like a sacrificed opportunity at what could have been an exceptional pairing. Moments like these are far from destroying the album, but they do show that occasionally, FlyLo's music could profit from more grounded songwriting.
Despite sometimes being too abstract for its own good, Flying Lotus's adventurous composition ends up being one of the most admirable aspects of Until the Quiet Comes. As his music continues to inspire an increasingly large generation of copycats, FlyLo seems to venture further into experimentation with unusual chord progressions and melodies, which is one of the main facets of his music that keeps him standing out from his contemporaries. It may not always connect emotionally on this LP, but it does so more often than not, frequently with astonishing results. The superb "Heave(n)" excels by way of its alluring vocal sample and blissful aesthetic, and the following "Tiny Tortures" effectively juxtaposes calming instrumentation against an uncommonly heavy kick drum. "Only if You Wanna" begins as one of the most straightforward examples of beat music on the record, providing one of its most physically engaging moments before descending into a brief jazz exercise that foreshadows the run of more dreamlike songs that comes afterward. Undoubtedly one of the album's most prime examples of compositional success is the second half of the previously mentioned "Hunger," a piece set in 7/8 that builds airy vocals and strings upon an arresting duet between bass guitar and something that vaguely resembles an electronically manipulated acoustic guitar. Moments like these go to show that when FlyLo's music utilizes the right amount of discipline, the result can be stimulating on a number of levels.
Aforementioned missteps aside, the guest spots on Until the Quiet Comes are generally efficacious as well. Renewing his role on Cosmogramma, Thundercat does double duty as both bassist and occasional vocalist. His flavorful, melodic bass lines are an essential cornerstone of a bulk of the LP, even going as far as to be the primary driving force behind songs like the standout title track. His sole vocal feature, "DMT Song," accurately represents its subject matter with a dreamy state that makes most current dream pop feel plastic in comparison, an effect that is achieved largely by his soft, boyish voice. Additionally, newcomer Niki Randa delivers two strong performances, especially on the haunting "Getting There." Laura Darlington excels as usual, contributing an eerie melody that works effectively alongside the song's mysterious aura. Each guest musician adds a significant element to the album without ruining its cohesion or causing it to feel like anything but FlyLo's own statement, which serves as a testament to his nearly impeccable taste in collaborators.
Until the Quiet Comes reaches its peak as it approaches its final few minutes with "Me Yesterday // Corded." As its title suggests, the song is divided into two halves, which are linked smoothly despite being distinctly different; the second strikes me as being clearly the strongest, though the first half also offers a fair share of quality. Wistful playing from what sounds like slightly muffled keyboards open the track, and soon after are joined by a somewhat sparse beat and altered vocals that remind me faintly of parts of the Nicolas Jaar EP that came out last year. The second half kicks off just after the two-minute mark with a relatively straightforward yet still off-kilter beat, simple yet well-chosen chord progression, and minimal yet powerful plinking melody. Over the course of the next two and a half minutes, Flying Lotus builds the piece into a cathartic powerhouse, introducing characteristically melodic bass lines from Thundercat, complementary vocal samples, and his signature "laser" sounds, all in addition to a variety of other sonic ornaments. In a way, this song is a culmination of the album's assets, showcasing both the experimental and emotional sides of his composition, representing both his electronic and organic sides at their finest, and utilizing his mass of typically intriguing sounds to create one of his most gripping sonic landscapes yet. FlyLo has a history of choosing strong closers (see "Auntie's Lock / Infinitum," "Galaxy in Janaki"), and although "Me Yesterday // Corded" technically isn't one, it feels properly conclusive. This is not to neglect "Dream to Me," however, a short yet delightful piece that feels appropriately reflective, concluding with finesse the colorful journey the record takes throughout its 48 minutes.
The context of my life has certainly changed drastically since I first became a Flying Lotus fan. I am no longer struggling to find sources of new music, nor am I as wide-eyed and naive in regards to the music world, and my sensibilities as a music fan have extended far beyond my then almost exclusive diet of independent electronic music. Flying Lotus's music has changed discernibly as well, and yet throughout the arc it has made, it has retained the originality and devotion to pushing boundaries that drew me to it in the first place. Until the Quiet Comes may not always strike an emotional chord with me, but it's loyalty to these qualities renders it a consistently enthralling experience nevertheless, and as previous FlyLo albums have, it feels like a singular phenomenon that never veers too closely to the already established ideas of others. In many ways, Flying Lotus is at the head of his generation, transcending waves of faceless imitators with his own pronounced personality traits, and eluding the confines of in-the-moment trends by setting his own. He is my favorite artist of all time, and bias accounted for, I'd be hard pressed to name many others who have as many truly substantial things to say.
Score: Decent to Strong 8
(Do you appreciate Flying Lotus as much as I do? More? Not even close? I've all but abandoned my Twitter, but feel free to let me know on Tumblr!)