Los Angeles bass virtuoso Stephen Bruner might have a slight obsession with Amageddon. His debut under the Thundercat name, Golden Age Of The Apocalypse, provided the first clue and his latest album, named simply Apocalypse, also dances around the leitmotif of the end of the world while providing the occasional glimmer of hope. But this time, Thundercat’s revelations are offset by his own personal loss. Last year, Brainfeeder labelmate and close friend Austin Peralta, a jazz pianist and music prodigy, died. His sudden death is the inspiration behind Bruner’s sophomore album, which is co-produced and co-written by Brainfeeder founder and producer Flying Lotus and electronic producer Mono/Poly, the latest addition to the Brainfeeder team.
Thundercat—whose musical resume includes work with equally eccentric artists like J*Davey, Flying Lotus and the hardcore punk/metal band Suicidal Tendencies—wastes no time lamenting over Peralta’s death on Apocalypse. The album’s opening track “Tenfold” sounds like a daily mantra that he recites to numb the pain: “I won’t forget you even passing/I know we’ll be/Don’t you forget me/Strange how things work/Nothing is promised,” he sings as if he’s fighting back tears. By the time the soulful, mid-tempo track “Heartbreaks + Setbacks” kicks in, the tears have dried. Here, Thundercat’s cool bravado comes in the form of peaceful cooing and warm falsettos that are wrapped in optimism and dazzling electronic glitches. “We know that there’s still hope/Just don’t let go,” he sings. But the singer/bassist can’t seem to shake the blues, even though he tries. While Golden Age was Thundercat’s progressive take on the jazz fusion sounds of the ‘70s made popular by legends like keyboardist George Duke and bassist Jaco Pastorius, Apocalypse is more subdued—there’s less dizzying funk, more soul and jazz beats driven by bold electronic intrusions.
More than a musical showcase, the album is ultimately a well-crafted documentation of the process of grief, but when songs like “Without You,” “We’ll Die,” “Special Stage” and “Evangelion” are juxtaposed together alongside Thundercat’s unadorned vocals, their quietude has the tendency to sound like unintentional elevator music. The complex instrumentations keep such energies at bay. “Oh Sheit It’s X,” the best and most fun song on the album, is Thundercat’s departure from melancholy. It emits exhilarating disco-drenched sounds and pairs it with a wild, wobbling bassline. Its funkiness requires more than a two-step or head bob—you’re going to have bring out your best dance moves on this one—no exceptions. Despite the heavy themes, there are plenty of moments of levity to be found: “Lotus And The Jondy” is a sleek, retro throwback that could be the musical accompaniment of a Blaxploitation film.
Taken together, Thundercat’s two albums form a fascinating dichotomy: Golden Age is the diligent performer who delivers sweat-filled shows, while Apocalypse is what happens when a somnolent musician returns for an encore. The high-energy has dispersed and the performance is gentler, more sentimental and bare. That shift in mood and tone is reflected in the album’s heartfelt eulogy-like outre, “A Message for Austin/Praise the Lord/Enter the Void,” where Thundercat’s emotional outpour is like that of a slow-moving river flowing into a stream of cosmic bliss.