Review Summary: Do the Astral Plane.
If someone asked an informed music fan for a list of the best modern session players, Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner would be somewhere in the list’s top 10. Best known as the face behind some of FlyLo’s best basslines, Thundercat is quite the accomplished musician, lending his talents to everyone from Erykah Badu to Childish Gambino. But as a slow artist, his talents are often overlooked. His debut solo album, “The Golden Age of Apocalypse,” was a wonderfully spacy record that definitely showcased his talents, but didn’t do a lot to grab the listener’s attention. Now we’ve arrived at record #2, the aptly-titled “Apocalypse” and we get to see how Bruner’s talents have developed.
And developed they have. From the beautifully spacious arrangements to the melancholy and poetic lyrics, Thundercat has made a record that stands on its own as a highlight of its genre, whatever that genre is. Whether it’s the soul of songs like “Special Stage” and Heartbreaks + Setbacks” or the stripped back folk of “We’ll Die” or “Evangelion” (a favorite of mine for obvious reasons), Thundercat conjures a retro cadence that hypnotizes and engrosses the listener. His knotting and repetitive basslines conjure images of mid-20th century jazz a la “Bitches Brew” or “Journey in Satchidananda,” while the synthesizers and other instrumentation bring to mind 70’s soul, 90’s 8-bit video game music (“Special Stage” samples Sonic the Hedgehog) and even classic anime (“Tenfold” was made to sound like the soundtrack to Dragon Ball Z, and the last track samples Ryuichi Sakamoto).
The lyrics here are also big steps up. Whether it’s his ability to tell stories (as he does on “Lotus and the Jondy” and “A Message for Austin / Praise the Lord / Enter the Void”) or just create a mood, Bruner showcases a fascinating way with words. He can be direct, as he is on “Oh Sheit it’s X” or steeped in allusion (“Evangelion”), making for the type of variety that his freshmen outing lacked.
Unfortunately though, this record does fall flat in some areas. The one problem that some may not be able to get past is Bruner’s idiosyncratic vocal stylings. This problem mostly manifests when he tries to hit unreasonably high notes outside of his range. When commenting on the album’s creation, Flying Lotus (who lends his production stylings to almost every track) made a big deal out of the fact that no pitch correction was used on the album and, while there’s no apparent need for it, some of Bruner’s more jarring vocal switches could have been ironed out more. Another problem for some could be the apparent lack of an emotional highlight. While tracks “Oh Sheit…” and “Heartbreaks + Setbacks” give the album sonic texture, the lyrics are still steeped in longing, regret and other emotions. For some fans of Flying Lotus’ work or even Bruner’s prior album, this album may be a bit too emotionally in-line with Evangelion for them.
But these are minor gripes. All-in-all, Thundercat comes through with a stunningly captivating and progressive work, effortlessly finding the intersection between classic R&B, fusion jazz and the odd area of electronic music that spiritual brother Flying Lotus and noted contemporary Nosaj Thing have been carving out for nearly a decade now. Even in the areas when it appears deficient, the album uses them to show its humanity. For a record that’s mainly about death and rebirth (pun intended), Bruner presents us with a surprisingly vivid and buoyant record that’s not afraid to address its mortality, but is more brazen and, in the end, more bold by showing it.