It’s nearly impossible to say anything bad about Flying Lotus. His great aunt is Alice Coltrane, his records see release on Warp, and before he was even able to lift an MPC, he was being tagged as the fundamental heir to the hallowed throne of J Dilla. Those are his three closest bloodlines by way of media construct. And as if through a strange form of hater osmosis, if you talk the slightest bit of jive on him you’re somehow burying the trio of aforementioned legacies. Combine the above with a discography which has shown considerable improvement with each LP released, a live show that is mania personified, and the fact that he’s never not smiling, and you arrive at the electronic-music equivalent of Barack Obama. So it’s with some consternation for both my personal credibility and Twitter feed that I make the next statement: Until The Quiet Comes is a bit inconsequential.
On the heels of Cosmogramma, Steven Ellison faced two distinct options with his follow-up: continue his trajectory of ratcheting the breadth with each passing release or pump the brakes and scale the whole production back a bit. Given the cinematic scope of that effort, traversing genre forms with unprecedented nonchalance sometimes within the context of single songs, from cosmic breakbeat to digitized jazz to Radiohead, an attempt at the latter was probably a good call. A step in the opposite direction would’ve likely led to a catastrophic cacophony of nonsense for anyone, let alone a 28-year-old producer still toeing the waters. And thus, for the first time in his recording career, he’s honed in on uniformity with Until The Quiet Comes. Unfortunately, in the course of his retreat, he’s somehow backtracked straight past the selling points that made him such an enigmatic figure in the first place. Gone is the charisma, spontaneity, and confidence that let him teeter on the brink of fervor while keeping us writhing in anticipation of his next step, the next layer in his spatial collage. In its place, a Van Gogh with the color washed out: still pretty to look at, but merely a shell when viewed in comparison to its original self.
The shift was intentional. Ellison has admitted as much through a number of interviews leading up to this release, specifically conveying to The Wire his intention to craft “a record for kids to dream to.” Nowhere is this push for subconscious-tinged uniformity more evident than with the album’s features. Erykah Badu and Thom Yorke are two of the most pronounced voices of this generation who should own their respective appearances. Yet the former is muted by flat congo knocks and a tidy bass run on “See Thru To U,” while Yorke is rendered indistinct for perhaps the first time in his life thanks to more of the same dampened percussion and an unnecessary, if atmospheric, echo effect. I’m sure that fielding questions about what it’s like to work with Badu and Yorke must get tiring, but their intrinsic presence alone begets chatter. If you’re going to bother flexing your Rolodex to merely tack a high-profile “Feat.” onto the back of your record sleeve, why not then take advantage of fact that they’re predestined to be focal points regardless of what they end up sounding like. Instead, these two are boxed into the formulaic processes of the preceding groundwork. So as opposed to the advertised “Electric Candyman (Feat. Thom Yorke),” we’re left with “Electric Candyman (talks over Thom Yorke).”
Other tools strung liberally throughout to force feed a semblance of cohesion include wind chimes, hand claps, and a slew of other smooth jazz pillars meant to induce a blunted fugue state. These are tricks he’s previously plied, except instead of being tethered to bombast and flare, here they’re left to fizzle inconsequentially by your ear space. In the three or so weeks leading up to this review, I listened to the LP more than I’d listened to any other 2012 release; I physically sat down and said to myself, “OK, time for this Flying Lotus record again.” And far more frequently than not, I found my attention span drained in mere seconds, unable to regain recognition for what exactly it was I was listening to again until I forced myself to reengage. Or until the woefully dislocated “Sultan’s Request” cuts through with its glitzy synth compression. It’s the only thing here that lends itself to Ellison’s L.A. beat scene origins, yet still feels no more valuable than a Cosmo throwaway.
One pass at a uniforming thread does prove tangible, however. Though only credited for his vocals once on album centerpiece “DMT Song,” Thundercat’s dexterous bass work is prevalent throughout. The two last collaborated on Thundercat’s 2011 debut, The Golden Age Of Apocalypse, and like that transcendent effort, the aforementioned ode to dimethyltryptamine works here because they’re seeing a particular idea all the way through. That album had comparable recommissioned odes to an ultra-specific era in which Herbie Hancock and Roy Ayers reigned supreme cool, and Bruner and Ellison were not shy with tipping their hats — most evident through that album’s nucleus, a near verbatim cover of George Duke’s “For Love I Come.” But working under the banner of Flying Lotus, their message comes across mixed. They’d prefer to continue mining similar influences, yet want to avoid replication of that tried formula, so they’ve simply blurred the edges of the equation. Or perhaps more appropriately, dulled.