The title of Thundercat‘s debut album was ‘The Golden Age of Apocalypse’. This one is simply ‘Apocalypse’. The former was an exploratory, celebratory album that saw Thundercat, aka Stephen Bruner, revel in bashing the boundaries between soul, jazz and electronica with his big fat bass, layered with lashings of Brainfeeder‘s signature lysergic spiritualism. In many ways the latter is much the same, but the apocalypse here is a much more personal one.
The album was recorded after the death of Bruner’s close friend, collaborator and Brainfeeder cohort Austin Peralta last year, and Peralta’s passing casts a moving shadow over what is otherwise an album teeming with vivacity. Indeed, Bruner himself has admitted he struggles to listen to ‘Apocalypse’, such is the emotional weight it’s tethered to. Yet while knowing its background provides context to the album, not least the epic closing eulogy, it doesn’t feel like a mournful record.
A session bassist for many years who’s played with everyone from Erykah Badu to Suicidal Tendencies (and even joined a boyband in his teens), there were apparently always inklings that Bruner was frustrated by the limitations such a role entails (there’s a great anecdote in this interview with Okayplayer where he recalls being told to take a rare solo by Snoop Dogg. When he finished Snoop just looked at him and said, “you didn’t have to do all of that”. Bruner lost the gig soon after). It was his long-time friend and musical partner Steven ‘Flying Lotus’ Ellison who forced him to turn the scraps of his own music into an album, and FlyLo again assumes a producer role here alongside fellow Brainfeeder Mono/Poly.
The difference in Bruner’s relationships with both producers may be what gives ‘Apocalypse’ its restless, questing spirit. While he acknowledges FlyLo’s influence on ‘Apocalypse’ by admitting ‘you can smell it all over’, his interactions with Mono/Poly are rooted in playful antagonism: “We don’t even say hi to one another most of the time. If he’s having a good day I want to say something that will ruin it. If he’s having a bad day, I want to make it better”.
Fortunately he’s not so contrary with his audience. Though he shifts through a huge range of styles, like Gok Wan rummaging through a charity shop bargain bin he somehow always emerges in smooth style. The ensemble that Bruner sports on opening track ‘Tenfold’ is particularly slinky, with dark, murky and seriously sexy synths and bass combining to create something fast-paced yet deliciously languid. His faultless falsetto and a similarly Prince-like guitar solo are then stirred in to paint a picture that’s utterly purple.
Lead single ‘Heartbreaks + Setbacks’ is, if anything, even better – long, drawn out chords drip into each other like honey, while there aren’t many bassists with the chops to make such a busy bassline sound so fluid. Like ‘Tenfold’, the way different elements drop the emphasis on different beats makes for an interesting rhythmic mix. There are flashes of TV On The Radio’s command of mesmeric melody too, which is lucky considering FlyLo admitted on Twitter that “the inst alone was so good i was scared 4 vox”.
He needn’t have worried, although the next track, ‘The Life Aquatic’, is an instrumental, and something of a stylistic departure too. Revolving around a straightforward 4/4 beat that sounds like Bruner’s skinned an industrial techno track and made it into a velvet robe, even the bass is kept resolutely simple. When you’re as good a musician as he is it must be tempting to constantly fire off in several directions, but here he shows an impressive restraint.
Not for long mind. ‘Special Stage’ is a big bowl of cheese-topped noodles that immediately made me think of a shit Sega Saturn racing game (apparently I’m not alone, as this Pitchfork review makes the EXACT same comparison, even though the key sample here actually comes from a different Sega title, Sonic the Hedgehog). ‘Tron Song’, which is supposedly about Thundercat’s actual cat, is similarly meandering, but with a soulful verve that wouldn’t sound out of place on Stevie Wonder’s ‘Innervisions’ – at least until the snappily fractured beat kicks in.
‘Oh Sheit It’s X’ takes another stylistic leap, this time into funky glitterball territory. As a paean to ecstasy it’s amusingly honest – “I don’t know where the bathroom is / My friends are like “you should eat something” / But I’m not hungry, just gonna keep dancing in this corner, baby” – while musically it sits much more comfortably in the stomach than Daft Punk’s ‘Random Access Memories’ (as FlyLo alluded to on Twitter, “with no disrespect i heard the daft thing and was like. ohh shit.. u can take that how u will”).
The tired beat, boring vocals and irritating jazzy meandering of soul snoozer ‘Without You’ is a dip, but the album is quickly hammered back into shape by ‘Lotus and the Jondy’. Wonky chords wriggle around on a sweet old-school break, while Bruner rambles on about goblins and ice creams (you can tell these guys have taken a lot of DMT together).
From here the album takes on a more reverent tone. Fluttering keyboards float through ‘Evagelion’ like a breeze through reeds, although the resonance of ‘We’ll Die’ is slightly ruined by the weird throat clearing halfway through (perhaps a sign that Bruner wants everyone to know he doesn’t take himself too seriously).
The first section of closer “A Message for Austin / Praise the Lord / Enter the Void” is the album’s most emotional moment, even if it might come across a little cloying without FlyLo’s following context (again from Twitter): “u wanna see some sad shit.. see us try to record this song about @AustinPeralta … he would try to record. then he would cry […] id cry … hearing him try to fight thru crying to sing this.. damn. … so.. we gave up … we said… fuck it.. make the demo vocals sound as good as possible. i couldn’t finish it so i passed this song to @daddykev to mix the vox. i remember playing this for @strangelooptv and when i heard him cry i knew we did the right thing. i was also worried that nobody would get it but people who knew us or knew austin. so many people have told me its their favorite [though]”.
It’s still not my favourite but it’s hard not to be moved after reading that, and the album as a whole makes for a fitting tribute to Bruner’s fallen friend. He may not be able to listen to ‘Apocalypse’ in full thanks to its sad associations, but it’s a record that we’ll be returning to again and again…