Until The Quiet Comes
, October 10th, 2012 07:25
Since Cosmogramma, Flying Lotus' music has been dreamlike, in the sense that it (consciously or not) eschews typical logic of cause and consequence. It actively resists the formation of concrete short-term memories, consisting instead of an extended series of individually heightened moments, each of which feels deeply significant while it's present, but begins to erode away as soon as it's replaced by the next set of sensations.
On Until The Quiet Comes, everything is geared towards the systematic erasure of what came before: the huge amount of detail packed into every second; the beats that escape the grid and land in unexpected places, challenging the mind's attempts to predict their trajectory; the continued primacy of whatever sensory experiences are available right now; the almost entirely uniform - even monotonous - nature of the album's sound palette, which for much of its length barely raises above a whisper's volume; the comparative lack of hooks or repeated motifs to latch onto. So each time Until The Quiet Comes plays, it's as if it's being discovered for the first time again. It's the supreme magic ear trick for neophile digital natives - the perpetual illusion of novelty no matter how many times it's previously been experienced, fooling the listener into feeling like they're experiencing something brand new every time.
None of Steven Ellison's music to date, then, has so fully articulated the contraction that lies at the heart of his post-Los Angeles output as Until The Quiet Comes. It is at once fluid and, by its very computer-created nature, unchanging and rigid. It hints at the looseness and spontaneity of Ellison's jazz forebears (his aunt and uncle are Alice and John Coltrane) when in fact every detail is meticulously planned, prescribed and fixed in place, worked and reworked, layered, folded and shaped to the nth degree. Until The Quiet Comes washes around and laps at the listener like balmy tropical water, promising to carry you in its slipstream to places even it doesn't know yet - but in truth its route has already been precisely mapped. Despite the emotions and headstates it provokes, its very lack of plasticity makes it fundamentally un-dreamlike. Is it wrong to criticise a record for not actually being different every time you drop the needle, touch the screen or click the mouse?
Narrative is everything when dealing with a record as perplexing as Until The Quiet Comes. In interviews Ellison has spoken about his desire to return to a more modest and settled place for this album, after Cosmogramma's sprawling attempts to map the universe. Indeed, the latter album occupies a peculiar space on my record shelf. I'm glad it's sitting there crying out for attention, and I'm grateful for its existence, and on the irregular occasions that I sit down to listen to it in full I'm still impressed and moved by it. As well as signaling a significant jump in ambition for Ellison's music upon its release in 2010 - taking steps away from the slouched post-Dilla instrumentals of his earlier years - it was a significant record in wider terms. It clearly described an emergent tendency in the electronic underground towards stitching as many reference points as (in)humanly possible into ever-smaller regions of space: in his case jazz, Aphex-styled shattered breaks, R&B, soul, musique concrète and so forth (were you to listen closely enough, the list could probably be ever-expanding, matching the implications of the album's title). But over the past couple of years it's been tough to summon up any particular inclination to actually listen to Cosmogramma with any regularity. Its overstimulated feel and abrupt changes in tack confound the memory in much the same way as day-to-day exposure to the mundane to-and-fro-ing of Twitter, Facebook and multiple email inboxes - in other words, the neural states it provokes mimic modern online reality a little too closely for total comfort.
Until The Quiet Comes represents a step away from that particular stage of Ellison's own personal narrative, a move into inner rather than outer space. Here it's the corridors of his own mind that he's set out to map. Listening through the album gives the sense that you're peering into or spying on his dreams, confounded by their logic (certainly it's hard to imagine anyone other than Flying Lotus taking his music along the pathways it travels here). Even his guest vocalists - Erykah Badu and Niki Randa, plus previous collaborators Thom Yorke and Laura Darlington - are disembodied phantoms, reanimated figments of his imagination stripped of agency and directed to their roles by Ellison's subconscious. Yorke's appearance is particularly striking: for such a distinctive and well-known voice he's comparatively robbed of that identity, seeping away into the backdrop in way that recalls Roger Robinson's ghostly presence on King Midas Sound's Waiting For You.
It's perhaps unsurprising that Ellison would have chosen this route for this album. As much as anything else, it's hard not to suspect that making Cosmogramma must have been a cathartic and draining experience - he lost his mother during the time it was being recorded. What's funny from a listener's perspective, however, is that although the textural palette and mood of Until The Quiet Comes is strikingly different to Cosmogramma (it largely sheds the caustic riptides of dissonant synth and low-slung, sleazy feel in favour of graceful strings, harp and harpsichord that verge on the saccharine) the actual sensations of listening to the two records - memory drain, disorientation - aren't as different as surface impressions might suggest.
Though where Cosmogramma was a riotous and hugely energetic whirl of new sounds, ideas and associations, Until The Quiet Comes is muted and monotone. It's beautifully produced and sumptuous, with an astonishing depth of field - synthetic strings, sub-bass and delicate beats are speckled with shards of the human voice and live instrumentation, while somewhere in the distance locked grooves trace out intricate spirographs of static. However, its capacity for expressiveness is kept in check by its uniform colour scheme and downbeat feel. It's frustratingly slight and polite, at times even verging on bland, where its predecessor was rude, volatile and unpredictable. Like an orchestral score for an animated kids' film, if you're not concentrating intently on the music, it can simply sink away into the background - save a few (albeit all too brief) curveballs like 'Sultan's Request', whose fat rips of bass leering into view are welcome reminders of the earthiness and grit of Los Angeles and Ellison's Brainfeeder contemporaries.
It's only during the album's final third that its composition and sequencing live up to the skill involved in its creation. Yorke's turn on 'Electric Candyman' is as spooky as the track's title suggests, compulsive repeats of "Look into the mirror" matched by drums that jostle and pound like an irregular heartbeat, and Randa's vocal performance on 'Hunger' is the highlight of the entire record, finding her bristling with restrained aggression above a peculiarly loopy, half-decomposed backing track that recalls The Caretaker. It's at this point that the Disneyishness of the album's first half is replaced by the tense ambiguity of a Studio Ghibli score, its animated inhabitants mutating from woodland creatures made alluring (big eyes, wholesome voices) into strange and grotesque beasts, all jaws and stomachs, with only the slightest basis in earthly reality.
So both on its own terms, and those of the grand narratives it engages with (the shifting identities of both humans and electronic music forms in a digital age; the internet's erosion of memory processes; its existence as a maximalist record with such modest ambitions), Until The Quiet Comes is clearly an important and significant album. Like Cosmogramma - to which it feels like a sister recording - that doesn't necessarily mean that it's an easy or completely fulfilling listen, or that it's an album I'll feel inclined to revisit with any particular regularity. It's flawed, but unlike the vast majority of Ellison's current contemporaries, its flaws and contradictions remain as intriguing as its positive points, and lend themselves to repeat listens: each time it's played, I'm struck by a nagging suspicion that I haven't heard this particular version of the album before. Which Ellison would no doubt approve of.