Jun 4, 2013

Music Review: "Apocalypse" by Thundercat

By Ian Cory

There are two ways to make your music unhip and they usually rest on opposites sides of a continuum. On one end is music that forgoes any kind of thematic or textural statement in favor of technical perfection. On the other end is music that goes overboard in its attempt to convey very broad emotional content. Music that takes the former approach gets accused of being clinical, emotionless and self-indulgent; music that takes the latter is called unsubtle, juvenile, and lacking in self awareness. This leaves a very narrow lane, which is occupied by a mix of downplayed musical competence and understated emotional affect, and while there’s certainly a lot of great work being done with these elements, it does leave wide swaths of music overlooked and cast aside. Woe to those artists who are pulled into both ends of the spectrum at once. Such is the fate of Thundercat and his new record Apocalypse.

Most well known for his work with groundbreaking producer Flying Lotus, Thundercat is the moniker of Stephen Bruner, an accomplished session bass player and jazz-fusion enthusiast. His first album, The Age Of Apocalypse, was the kind of dorky music for musicians that you’d expect from a guy who names his record after an X-Men story arc. It was an updated take on the virtuosic bass playing of Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius, crammed into short, high energy songs with a distinct electronic flavor. That formula remains on Apocalypse* but some of the proportions have been shifted. Most noticeably the ratio of instrumental tracks to vocal centric tracks has been completely flipped. This is the kind of change that could completely upset an artist’s style, but it works nicely here. Forced to arrange his songs around his voice instead of his admittedly prodigious bass skills, Thundercat has learned how to craft fairly effective pieces of jazz pop. It helps that his voice has a smooth and soft quality reminiscent of Stevie Wonder at his lightest. The insane bass work also shows up a great deal, but in less obvious places, often working in the background of an otherwise straightforward verse. Of course, several songs use fade outs to strip back the layers of the song and reveal the insanity bubbling up from the deep end, and the handful of instrumental tracks, especially “Seven”**, let Bruner go wild without worrying about stomping over the melody.

While the compositions are all excellently balanced internally, there’s another scale on Apocalypse that remains almost permanently tipped to one side. This gets back to the central conceit of my opening paragraph. Thundercat’s technical pedigree has been established (and is supported by typically meticulous, if somewhat cold, production from Flying Lotus) but the increase in vocals also means an increase in lyrical content, which brings with it a whole truckload of emotional expression. Some additional context helps here. Much of the album is written about, under the shadow of, the death of Austin Peralta, another Flying Lotus collaborator and a friend of Bruner’s. As such, even at their most exuberant, the funky dance track “Oh Sheit It’s X”, Bruner’s lyrics are filled with descriptions of absence and loss. On “Heartbreaks+Setbacks”, the album’s highlight and most tuneful cut, Bruner struggles with the idea of maintaining hope in an untrustworthy world and urges the subject, and himself, to continuing pushing towards the light. These themes of perseverance through dark times show up across the entire record, and even take on a religious tone in the album’s majestic closer, “A Message To Austin”, in which Bruner promises to see his friend in another life.

All of this is well and good on paper, and certainly comes from a genuine place. So why is it that Apocalypse does next to nothing for me on an emotional level? The easy answer is that the content does not match the form. Thundercat’s highly complex and clever chord progression don’t seem to invoke contemplations on mortality so much as music theory homework and the wonky drum loops and layered bass solos feel more like explorations in aesthetics than catharsis over the loss of a loved one. But this is entirely a result of my own associations with music, as well as my personal history. For someone as steeped in fusion and R&B tradition as Bruner, these sounds probably do fit the emotions he feels. And likewise the music that I find emotionally compelling*** might fall flat for someone with vastly different life experiences. I know that this point may seem obvious, but it’s important to consider when judging an artist’s ability to communicate their feelings. One man’s technical exercise may very well be the end of the world for another.

Grade: C

*I’m referring to the new album here, and will be doing so for the rest of the review, just to avoid confusion
**Technically, this isn’t an instrumental as there is a short vocal section at the end that sounds like something straight out of Close To The Edge.

***Just for example, put on The National’s version of “TheRains Of Castamere” and I will almost certainly go catatonic

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