Stephen Bruner, aka Thundercat, has become the go-to bassist for artists seeking a virtuosic but tasteful low-ender. Notably on Flying Lotus’ 2010 LP, Cosmogramma, his fidgety six-string runs meshed perfectly with FlyLo’s electronica, heralding a surprisingly coherent musical partnership that would blossom with Thundercat’s first solo offering, The Golden Age of Apocalypse.
Whilst on paper the idea of a fusion-versed bassist collaborating with an electronica producer might sound inaccessible, in practice the result is accessible almost to the point of pop. Thundercat’s sound is a near-perfect marriage of catchy soul imbued with a sense of Afrofuturism [vaguely reminiscent of the likes of Weather Report and Billy Cobham], creating an album that valiantly attempts to present technological and musical virtuosity in coexistence with funk and soul.
Enter Apocalypse. The album’s grandiose title serves to signpost the ambitious content in store.
Wide-eyed opener “Tenfold” sets the precedent for the album, all floaty melodies and quirky chord progressions, melting into a bass-thumping programmed drum beat and stadium-rock guitar shredding. What follows is a crash course in astral jazz, twinkling electronica and soul; songs stream by in ecstatic rushes before your brain can interpret them.
As on his debut, Bruner chose Flying Lotus as his co-producer, adding electronic quirks to his arrangements, digitally manipulating live solos and evolving beats fluidly; this collision never feels forced. The grooves here are more funky than the spaced-out explorations of Thundercat’s debut and it seems that, certainly in earlier parts of the album, both FlyLo’s beats and Bruner’s arrangements pull towards the dance floor; especially with tracks like the infectious “Heartbreaks + Setbacks.”
Despite its spiritual and cerebral allusions, the album often feels carefree and celebratory. The jazz-prog of “Seven” provides a contrast with the hedonism of “Oh Sheit it’s X”; with “X” itself being an album highlight, strutting a disco bass over clichéd lyrics like ‘I just wanna party’.
It is commendable that Thundercat restrains his musical indulgence until the ninth track, the more traditionally jazz fusion “Lotus and the Jondy.” Such devices make Apocalypse a well sequenced album; the good times reaching their peak at “X,” moving through the exploratory jazz of “Lotus” and culminating in a final seven minute song suite. Throughout the album Bruner portrays lyrical themes of cosmic love and devotion, and these reach their peak in “A Message for Austin / Praise the Lord / Enter the Void.” A heartfelt tribute to long-time collaborator Austin Peralta, in it Bruner expounds on ideas of reincarnation and astral travel over a backing that could be likened to a J. Dilla remix of John William’s score for E.T.
Most tracks on Apocalypse are short, releasing themselves in flurries of activity in ways that can feel quite sketchy, leaving little time for a sense of development. Over the final song suite, however, there is a clear sense of unrushed, organic progression; building to an emotive climax before washing out. Whilst frenetic musicality sometimes takes precedent over songcraft, for the most part Thundercat seems to have found a perfect blend of virtuosity and easy enjoyment. Bruner is testament that, in an era of lyricists and producers often providing more creative input than the artists themselves, musical virtuosity can still be respected and produce great songs.