Album Review: Thundercat, “Apocalypse”

(Originally written for Reverb1)

thundercat-cover

All too often, jazz comes across as a sort of high-fiber music. It’s rich in content but not effortlessly enjoyable for most.

In the world of fusion, though, even the fussiest listeners can find a flavor that’s to their liking. Among the many styles, there’s electro-jazz, or nu-jazz, a far-flung and experimental permutation epitomized by the digital bebop beats of L.A. producer Flying Lotus and jazz-funk, the genre at its heppest and most feel-good, typified by modern legends like Herbie Hancock and George Duke.

Bassist/vocalist Thundercat, civilian name Stephen Bruner, plays around in the both of these sub-categories, often with the genres’ champions in tow. On his debut album, Thundercat took a stab at Duke’s “For Love I Come,” and Flying Lotus is not just Bruner’s close friend and frequent collaborator, but the executive producer on Thundercat’s latest LP (not to mention the head of his label, Brainfeeder). As for Hancock, he’s embedded in the DNA of what Thundercat and Lotus brew up—especially circa early 1980s. Then there’s this, via Flying Lotus’s Vine.

But where Hancock was consistently exuberant, Thundercat’s sophomore LP is a gloomy affair. If Thundercat’s debut, “Golden Age of the Apocalypse,” took a rapturous view of the end, that golden light has vanished in “Apocalypse.” Most of its songs express longing and loss, whether with words or just rhythms and meandering bass lines.

The mood no doubt reflects the loss of Bruner’s friend Austin Peralta, a singularly prodigious jazz pianist who passed unexpectedly last year at just 22 years old. Bruner has spoke at length on Peralta’s influence on him musically and referred to him as his “closest friend ever.”

It follows that Peralta’s absence permeates the album—not just in the notable lack of keys, but thematically. “Tenfold” is a breathless start, as Bruner comforts a nameless companion: “You can let go / you can trust me / I will never leave you.” This leads into “Heartbreaks + Setbacks,” a snappy representation of the album’s whole and maybe the best track of Thundercat’s short solo career. The album’s final track, “A Message for Austin / Praise the Lord / Enter the Void” addresses Peralta directly in almost straight spoken word, promising him they’ll be reunited in another life someday.

One oddity in the album’s flow comes in “Oh Sheit It’s X,” a party narrative about dropping ecstasy with friends. It’s a non-representative single in many ways, but it comes as a welcome break from the occasionally plodding heaviness elsewhere and good a takeaway if you’re DJing anytime soon.

It’s also worth noting that Flying Lotus has a hand in a lot of the magic on “Apocalypse.” Listing an in-demand producer like FlyLo for an album can often come across as a pitch to get fans on-board, but his touch can be felt an almost every track here. In fact, you could say “The Life Aquatic” and “Seven” are just as much Flying Lotus tracks featuring Thundercat as they are vice-versa.

Thundercat’s “Apocalypse” is a soulful tribute to Austin Peralta from one of his closest friends, in a style he would have appreciated. With some help from Flying Lotus, it also stands alone as a solid electro-jazz album, and a worthy entry into both collaborators’ catalogues. There’s funk to be had as well, but aside from one song, the groove’s an aid to contemplation, not rug-cutting.

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