BY JORDAN MAINZER
Much to the chagrin of geezers, electronic music is at the forefront of today’s music world. Skrillex, Deadmau5, and Avicii are headlining festivals, taking spots previously occupied by jam bands and hip hop artists, and hip hop artists like Kanye and Jay-Z are rapping over Flux Pavilion. What to make of all this? Believe it or not, there’s a world of intermediates in between womp-womp-womp and John Cage.
For every musical movement or trend that goes mainstream, there’s usually a reaction or an underground. The current maximalist trend in some of the best electronic music released today, however, occupies a middle ground. Flying Lotus (Steven Ellison), a Renaissance man of electronic music who imbibes in everything from drum-and-bass to downtempo electronic jazz, was pissed when in 2010 his seminal maximalist opus Cosmogramma was not nominated for a Grammy, the pinnacle of mainstream musical culture. FlyLo’s first great album, 2008’s post-Dilla chill pill Los Angeles, brought him into this middle ground. After the Grammy snub, he stayed there.
Yet, Cosmogramma unleashed a fury of electronic artists also on pioneering, mostly electronic label Warp, who adopted Cosmogramma’s couldn’t-get-any-denser approach to their music making. The prime example of post-Cosmogramma maximalism is the work of Scottish DJ Rustie. Mixing dubstep, instrumental hip-hop, and grime, Rustie’s 2011 Glass Swords and 2012’s BBC Essential Mix have attracted the attention of artists like the up-and-coming AlunaGeorge, so much so that they sang over Glass Swords track “After Light”. The BBC mix has allowed pump-up tracks like S-Type’s “Billboard” to leak into the headphones of indie kids.
Rustie isn’t the only DJ who has not only led by example but also introduced the music listening world to something never-before heard, as if we’ve been transported back to some magical music-listening era where that kind of thing still happens. FlyLo’s live sets (especially his monster set at last year’s Pitchfork Music Festival) have done their fair share of not only mashing up his tunes with contemporary hip hop hits, but in revealing the best that maximalist instrumental hip hop has to offer. I’ll forever remember, during his Pitchfork set, first being exposed to what was one of my most played tracks of last year, TNGHT’s unstoppable banger “Higher Ground”. Nobody had ever heard the track before and mostly everybody went crazy in what was perhaps the most pure collective music listening experience I’ve ever witnessed. The track itself is so heavy that it practically begs someone to rap over it, like Kendrick Lamar tried to do on Gilles Peterson’s BBC 6 Radio show.
If today’s Flying Lotus live sets scratch his maximalist itch, the sharp artist recognized that, in studio, he had no choice but to scale back from the very world he helped to create. His 2012 album Until the Quiet Comes was just as great as Cosmogramma for completely different reasons. I’ve rarely heard an electronic release so emotional, one that tells a story through the images it creates in your head, images of descending into a dream and floating above a world where you can find inner peace by witnessing the stories of others below you. Just as he did in Cosmogramma, FlyLo collaborated on Until the Quiet Comes with Thom Yorke, Thundercat, and Laura Darlington, also adding Erykah Badu and Niki Randa. FlyLo knows how to use voices as instruments to mix and match with other sounds just as much as Yorke does himself. Save for the three blissful minutes of “Putty Boy Strut”, Until the Quiet Comes was down-tempo and simply beautiful. I don’t think an electronic release made me so consistently happy during and post-listen since The Avalanches’ 2000 sample-based masterpiece Since I Left You.
It’s not only FlyLo’s Brainfeeder label, founded in 2008, that challenges the listener’s maximalist expectations with excellent down-tempo beats artists like Teebs and Lapalux and electronic funk bass-heads (no, not that kind of bass) like Thundercat. It’s Steven Ellison himself, an artist so on top of his domain that he creates, popularizes, and leaves entire subgenres of electronic music seemingly at will. The mark of a true innovator (and of a bit of a troll).
So where do we go from here? The maximalist trend doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Warp label-mate Jamie Lidell’s new single (maybe the best thing he’s done since 2005’s awesome Multiply) is basically a Rustie track. It certainly sounds like the future and its album art looks like the future. Yet, one must ask: Will Until the Quiet Comes inspire down-tempo innovators that will start releasing music around 2014? Maybe. Perhaps likely. Instead of getting busy predicting, though, sit back, relax, fall asleep to “See Thru To U”, wake up, go for a run to “Easy Easy” on repeat, and generally be thankful that at least some music listeners and artists aren’t brainlessly and constantly asking, “Yeah…but where’s the bass drop?”