Jazz and twitchy, break-beat electronic music seem like an unlikely combination, but Steven Ellison has gone there and hasn’t come back. In fact, working as Flying Lotus, he’s created an exodus of beatmakers following him to his native Los Angeles to replicate his sound, which is better described in a long list of adjectives, not genres. Jazz is soulful, emotional and contemplative, while electronic dance music is synthetic, rational and straightforward. On the other hand, both genres openly embrace instruments for what they are — you wouldn’t find any skeuomorphic trumpets pretending to sing — and highly depend on the musician’s individuality for the sound’s own personality. They just also happen to describe FlyLo’s Until the Quiet Comes better than an “EDM/Jazz fusion” label could.
Until the Quiet Comes is FlyLo’s fourth record, but it feels more like his second after Cosmogramma rebooted his career much the same way Kid A did for Radiohead. As his ‘second’ record, it is subject to the dangers of the sophomore slump. How do you follow Cosmogramma, one of the trippiest, mind-bending records of the decade? Do you risk disaster by moving in a totally different direction, or risk unoriginality by staying with what you have?
Most artists respond by creating a compromise between the two directions but still fall into the slump because they fail to balance the two. Ellison had avoided that before by avoiding singles in favor of albums, which resulted in mellow songs that showed much greater potential, and Cosmogramma was a huge risk that just happened to succeed very well. But Until the Quiet Comes sounds like a natural evolution from Cosmogramma: The glitch-hop is still there, but it’s now based upon swimmy R&B. Outrageous song names like “Satelllliiiiiiiteee” and “Computer Face // Pure Being” are pushed out for normal ones like “Getting There” and “Only If You Wanna.” The ear-pounding breakbeats pulse in a murmuring coffee shop, not a rave. UTQC is, essentially, Cosmogramma all grown up.
Whereas Cosmogramma begins with quickly escalating warped synthesizers, abrasive lutes and thumping electric bass, UTQC starts with precious bells and a soft, ticking snare drum supplemented with a snazzy keyboard that floats in the air like jazz music over the radio on a warm summer night. “Getting There” follows with funky Cosmogramma breaks, but also imitates that immediate lull before you fall asleep: The beats are a vehicle that propels and tumbles the sleepy listener towards the next song instead of being the main attraction. The listener finally arrives into the dream world in “Until the Colours Come,” like those movies where a visitor steps into the court of an exotic queen in a faraway place. It’s hardly mentioned, but Ellison’s exquisite production doesn’t make that necessary.
This isn’t an accident, of course: As he declared to The Guardian, Ellison intended the album to be “a collage of mystical states, dreams, sleep and lullabies,” while in an interview with Vibe he talked about how fascinating dreams are. “The notion of the unknown and beyond is something that I’ve always been curious about, and the music [is] where I can ask those questions,” he said.
Thinking about dreams, however, seems too simple of an explanation for a guy who isn’t satisfied with using just three types of bells in one song. Indeed, when Vibe asked him about his best dream, he mentioned that it’s one that out-reals reality: “A really amazing god-like being came down to earth … he took me up into the sky where you can see the whole planet. From that angle you could see everything, including some of the most amazing details … it felt more real than reality.” Rather than a total departure from the awake world, for Ellison the dream world is an enhanced version of what surrounds us, where the colors are vivider, smells are sharper and stimuli are greater. It’s a world where psychosis is embraced instead of shunned, unlike Cosmogramma, which made psychosis both distant, frightening and fascinating.
It is unfortunate then, that as Ellison painstakingly explores ontological questions (narrowing down from 50 tracks to 18 for a perfectionist is not easy) in his most accessible album to date, UTQC will be compared unfavorably to Cosmogramma. But like the EDM/Jazz label and Ellison himself, the album is an enigma — it is a separate work, but also sounds like Cosmogramma, Part II. They have entirely different aesthetics, but if you listen to both albums in succession you’ll have trouble telling when Cosmogramma closer “Galaxy in Janaki” jumps into UTQC album opener “All In.” Any way you cut it, Ellison has somehow made it unwarranted to single out an album from his holistic work.
In the album’s climax, “DMT Song,” collaborator Thundercat’s vapor-like vocals clear out a sleepy haze that shows for a split second how expansive the record actually is: “I can take you to a world where you could spread your wings and fly away.” Only Flying Lotus could make us really believe such clichéd words.