Release Date: Jul 9, 2013
Record label: Brainfeeder
Genre(s): R&B, Pop/Rock, Alternative R&B
One of the many charms of Thundercat's first album, The Golden Age of Apocalypse, was the manner in which the supernaturally skilled bassist seemed to wing his way through songwriting -- stumbling upon ideas, going with the flow, goofing off -- and come up with brilliance. On his sharper, more focused second album, he works through anguish -- the loss of close friend and musical partner Austin Peralta -- with some staggeringly emotive and tightly composed content. There's less room for instrumentals and noodling, but even those moments are purposeful.
It’s hard to find a more ‘Brainfeeder’ artist than Stephen ‘Thundercat’ Bruner. He’s got the jazz family connections box firmly ticked; and as his work on Cosmogramma showed, he has more than enough of the kind of technical chops that producer and label owner Stephen ‘Flying Lotus’ Ellison looks for in collaborators and signees. Spiritually he fits like a glove: his music is heavy with the cosmic Ra-isms, offbeat wit and soulful musings that have permeated the label’s releases.
Apocalypse, the second album by bass maestro extraordinaire Stephen Bruner, aka Thundercat, is an album that sounds quite unlike almost anything else. It is a record that equally represents the past and the future, one that plays around with perceptions, moods, feelings and emotions. For Thundercat, Apocalypse is a special transcendent place where he seeks to take his music.
Chances are you probably know at least one joke about bassists with a ‘hilarious’ punch-line. Laugh out loud stuff indeed, but it’s fair enough to say that people don’t usually bestow the same adulation on bass players as they might with lead singers or guitarists. Quietly holding everything together, the bassist is an appreciated cog powering the machine, but rarely the combustion chamber.
The idea of the instrumental virtuoso has fallen out of favor in some underground music circles. This prejudice is usually based around the idea that anyone who has that much invested in the technical aspects of their preferred instrument has gotten so far up their super-muso ass that there's no emotional engagement in the music itself. Bass maestro Stephen Bruner's found a few ways to avoid that fate: cultivating a sessionman's versatility equally suited to gigs with both Erykah Badu and Suicidal Tendencies, aligning himself with the artsy but down-to-earth Brainfeeder community, and, as Thundercat, putting out solo work that, from the outset of 2011's The Golden Age of Apocalypse, used his chops almost exclusively for a feeling of fidgety joy.
In the two years since his debut album as Thundercat, the virtuoso bass player Stephen Bruner has added ever more impressive names to his list of admirers and collaborators. Erykah Badu, Dr Dre and Odd Future have joined Suicidal Tendencies and Flying Lotus as Thunder fans. Just one listen to this album reveals why; the grace and versatility of Bruner's playing transforms his supporting instrument into a leading one rich with musical possibility.
Listening back, touches of the musical and emotional concepts that anchor Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner's masterful new disc can be heard and felt in fragments on the debut record that moved him out of the shadows of session playing into the spotlight two years ago. But what separates Apocalypse from Bruner's debut is the more refined and thoughtful approach the heralded bassist reveals in his song-writing, weaving running themes of bewilderment, measured acceptance and a longing for the one who just won't come into a more cohesive whole this time out. While Bruner's uncanny bass work still forms the core, much of the record's sonic brilliance is found floating in the surrounding compositional elements, like the skittering drums and ricocheting effects of "Special Stage," the fluttery orchestral tones of "Tenfold" and "Tron song," and the murky, underwater mood of "The Life Aquatic.
Like his debut LP, The Golden Age Of Apocalypse, Thundercat's sophomore effort blends funk, IDM, jazz and soul, punctuated by his throwback falsetto. Built on its predecessor's foundation, Apocalypse is an even brighter incarnation of a new sound. You can imagine Thundercat, aka Stephen Bruner, as a kindergartner, new to bass-playing, lying in ThunderCats cartoon bedding in the 1980s, dreaming up the musical future.
Flying Lotus and Thundercat have been highlighted as the dynamic duo of Los Angeles indie electronic label Brainfeeder Records. Their first collaborations, on 2010’s Cosmogramma and 2011’s The Golden Age of the Apocalypse, enthused audiences with distinct flavors in every track, as Lotus experimented with complex drum flair and synth warps, and Thundercat’s slick bass licks challenged the pace of the metronome. As they saddle up for round two, they’ve gradually broken down those distinctions and found sweet harmony within a simultaneous understanding of free jazz, a cosmic playground that “makes [each instrument] into its own locomotive.
Unlike some of his Brainfeeder labelmates (Lapalux, Martyn), Thundercat prioritises vocals, R&B harmonies and traditional instruments over beats and bleeps. If you’ve come for the production of label jefe Flying Lotus, you get it, but with an added dose of Miguel-style cooing about breakups and makeups (‘Heartbreaks & Setbacks’). Bass fantasias (‘Oh Sheit It’s X’) recall previous collaborator Robert Trujillo’s funkiest moments and Weather Report-style jazz-outs (‘Without You’) are highlights, and a touching tribute to late pianist Austin Peralta reinforces that this is an album with a lot of tenderness.
On "Oh Sheit It's X," the playful highlight from his second album, Stephen Bruner invites us to join him "in this ecstasy" – or is it "in this Ecstasy"? Either way, the singer-bassist-songwriter (dba Thundercat) is opening a door into a private world; no one this year has made an album as original as Apocalypse. With significant help from producer/Thom Yorke collaborator Flying Lotus, Apocalypse is both esoteric and outlandish, built around Bruner's rubbery, odd-metered bass-guitar excursions, sparse grooves and trippy falsetto musings. (Bruner has a legitimate jazz pedigree, but his virtuosity doesn't extend to the words on Apocalypse – lyrics like "Listen with your heart" and "It's all in your hands" sound like Steve Carell portraying a motivational speaker in a Paul Feig movie.
Daft Punk's recent jaunt into antique-analog rootsiness may or may not signal a sea change in contemporary electronic production, but whatever the future holds, it's worth remembering that these kinds of affectations have been echoing across the pop landscape for years. Picking up on the vinyl-influenced woolliness that's always been a prevalent, if at times minor, strain in hip-hop and dance music, the tradition maintained by producers like J. Dilla and Madlib has given rise to the backward-glancing muscle of artists like Adrian Younge and Flying Lotus, who prize warm, vibrant textures shaped from live instrumentation and classic funk and soul-rooted sounds.
With “Daylight” one could effortlessly misinterpret Thundercat’s (Stephen Bruner) music as the same kind of electronic music that artists like Hudson Mohawke and Rustie are fashioning: a sort of wonky, sort of grimy but mostly, electronically-refreshing take on beats and synths. Naturally so, it was the lead song off his debut, The Golden Age of Apocalypse, however; as a multi-genre bassist, Bruner’s music reaches much farther and much, much wider. Proclaiming that he hopes jazz can be the new hip-hop one day, his second album, Apocalypse, challenges the notions of music with a forward-thinking release – one that is in many ways, a breakthrough.
“Can you hear the sound of infinity?” inquires Thundercat near the end of “Seven,” a track on his second album, “Apocalypse.” As if to answer his own rhetorical question, what follows is an improvised cadenza on electric bass, both dazzling and no big deal. Then: some hanging-in-the-studio banter, some laughter. A day at the office, basically.