Many bass players are wallflowers. Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner is not one of them.
On his debut record, the 25-year-old bass phenom moves like Charles Mingus, bumps like Bootsy Collins, jams like Jaco Pastorious, and wields his electric fencepost like a weapon of mass seduction. Despite its ominous title, The Golden Age of Apocalypse is less like Hurricane Irene, more like The Weather Channel, and even more like Weather Report. The album is a swanky throwback to 70’s fusion and 90’s acid jazz, soft rock swank with a hint of hip-hop heat. Along the way, Bruner appropriates aspects of acts in which he has played as a sideman: the soul of Erykah Badu, the ambience of Flying Lotus, and the fury of Suicidal Tendencies (which he joined at age 17).
Thundercat, Fleer Ultra
Apocalypse is largely instrumental, with farty keyboards and retro space-age synthesizers over Bruner and his brother Ronald on drums, a rhythm section so tight it must be fraternal telepathy. At its funkiest (“Fleer Ultra”), Apocalypse percolates as if Stevie Wonder and Jaco Pastorious joined forces to play a video game soundtrack. And for anyone who loves the low end, the album is filled with blistering bass breaks plucked in a clear and trebly tone. (For a taste, try “Is It Love?” at the 3:00 mark)
Thundercat, Is It Love?
To the skeptic, however, much of Apocalypse may sound like elevator music, smooth jazz, or Yacht Rock, the saccharine stuff that survives in dental offices, grocery stores, pharmacies, on oldies stations and in countless cabs after midnight. And fairly or not, musical sophistication in pop music often alienates listeners, as proven by bands like Steely Dan, King Crimson, and Yes. In that context, Apocalypse is brave. Thundercat wears his fromagerie on his sleeve, not only with his neo-porn grooves and delicate instrumentation (e.g. strings, xylophone, sax), but with song titles like “Seasons,” “Boat Cruise,” and “Jamboree.”
Then again, maybe the tides of taste have turned in their now predictable 20-year cycles. In the 90’s bands like Incognito and Brooklyn Funk Essentials revived 70’s smoothness, A Tribe Called Quest made jazz bassist Ron Carter a household name in hip-hop, and The Fugees resuscitated Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly.” Two decades later, indie poster boy Bon Iver flirts with influences as passé as Bruce Hornsby and Bonnie Raitt, and Jay-Z’s new protege J. Cole quotes hits by Paula Abdul and Tina Turner. Meanwhile, a new version of the 80′s cartoon Thundercats aired in July and a movie is in the works.
The first song on Apocalypse samples the catch phrase that appeared in every episode of the show (“Thunder, Thunder, Thundercats, Ho!”) But before you can revive your Lion-O worship or Cheetarah crush, the song yields after 23-seconds to the blissed-out “Daylight.” From there, Bruner heads to funkytown, with a mix of upbeat grooves and throbbing slow jams. At the end of the record, he takes some stylistic detours. “Seasons” has a quasi-Brazilian feel. The minor key bass riff that opens “Mystery Machine (The Golden Age of Apocalypse)” would fit in an Enrico Morricone Spaghetti Western score. Later in the song, the band drops out as an E-flat chord tolls like a church bell.On the final track, “Return to the Journey,” the vibe gets ultra-mellow with a soft electric piano, water drip percussion, and a wash of unintelligible singing.
On an otherwise meticulously crafted record, the vocals on Apocalpyse seem like an afterthought. Bruner’s voice is soothing, but is mainly window dressing. The lyrics speak to archetypal themes of love and loss, but with neither depth nor memorable lines. Then again, with a groove this smooth, who needs words? Besides, Lion-O fought with his sword, not his tongue.