Album Review: Thundercat – Apocalypse

[Brainfeeder; 2013]

Let’s get something clear straight off the bat – this is as much a Thundercat solo LP as The Chronic was purely the work of Dr Dre. Just as that record was characterised by the fairly even split on mic duties between a sonorous Dre and the rasp of a rising Snoop Doggy Dogg, so too does Apocalypse bear the obvious hallmarks of Flying Lotus, who holds down a multifaceted role. As co-producer and co-writer naturally at least a modicum of his influence would be felt, but his fingerprints are clearly detectable across the whole thing; there are spots that legitimately give pause as to who was really calling the shots in the studio. Fortunately enough the meeting of Steven Ellis and Stephen Bruner comes up trumps with an incisive, often dazzling record that largely continues the stargazing blueprint laid down on Cosmogramma standout “MmmHmm.” Their working relationship is a wholly symbiotic one. Bruner reigns in some of his mentor’s intermittently distracting esoteric tendencies while Ellis simultaneously allows his protégé to roam outside the self-imposed confines of more conventional song structures. That sense of finely balanced duality affords Apocalypse the impression of being more than the sum of its individually impressive parts: hazy production on what would otherwise be out’n’out R’n’B jams keep them tantalisingly beyond reach, retaining a sense of intrigue even after multiple listens; conversely, Ellis’ mastery of dynamics nudges the less forthright cuts towards something approaching relative normality – well, when viewed through a Brainfeeder lens, perhaps. Recorded directly in the wake of the sudden, untimely death of close friend and preternaturally talented label stalwart Austin Peralta, it is an album laced with no small tragedy that somehow doubles up as one of the breeziest summer records of the year, the sunny yin to Until The Quiet Comes‘ crepuscular yang.

Not for lack of trying, but it proves a tad difficult not to repeatedly refer back to FlyLo’s fantastic fourth full-length, chiefly because a couple of the tracks sound like leftovers – not vaguely comparable or even upgraded offshoots, rather pretty much to-the-letter reproductions of the more murky sketches on UTQC, stitched from identical cloth but removed from the overall tapestry. “The Life Aquatic” is all clipped kicks and wan melodic lines wafting through a dense fog of purple and orange. Bruner’s muted vocals tiptoe subtly around the edges of the track, adding layers to the low-lying ambience, however it nonetheless remains a curious decision to drop the track in third and break the early rush of momentum and winds up arguably the least vital number on here. “Seven” – track six, obviously – fares far better in every department, carrying obvious signifiers from both men behind the mixing desk. A marriage of dripping water effects, odd chirrups and stroke-of-midnight piano chords contribute to the muggy atmosphere, set up against a subdued knocking drum pattern and Bruner’s dialed-down bassline beavering away diligently underneath the floorboards. The nocturnal vibe is total until someone seemingly flips the light switch, allowing Bruner to reel off a playful couplet about night-vision before his hammy “can you hear the sound of infinity?” rings out, to which FlyLo flashes his enormous gummy grin and everyone collapses to the floor in fits of laughter.

A surprising amount of humour can be found nestling amongst the pain on Apocalypse, much of it ensconced within minuscule fragments of Ellis’ studio trickery as he pings odd samples into tracks like rubber bands at will, or Bruner’s brief off-piste forays, confident in his own ability to reign it back in as & when. These bouts of wink-wink jocularity between the two key players – at one point Bruner admits to being “stuck in a pattern grid world” – offset the technical intricacy, preventing the music from subsuming under its own weighty intelligence. A great level of precision and care has clearly been poured into Apocalypse, but the record never sounds laboured over. It has a refreshingly off-the-cuff feel, even when dealing with hefty subject matter: “Lotus and the Jondy” bounds out of the traps in a spry fashion, allowing the catchy refrain to run circles around a bombastic flurry of crash cymbals and explosive toms, completely belying the fact the “Jondy” in question is Peralta, and what appears to be a jaunty tune is really a lament for “straight tripping in the darkness” which he can never again enjoy with his buddy.

In part, the coping mechanism boils down a loosening of inhibitions. The wee-hours quiet storm of “Without You” is broadly indicative of Ellis’ attempts to blur the fugue with “just a drink or two,” dolefully letting a string of soft “la la la”s melt into the swirling backdrop. Conversely, there is one outlier that provides a bracing contrast, wallowing in its own crapulence. “Oh Sheit It’s X” wastes absolutely no time getting down to business, launching headfirst into a frazzled synth lead and sloppy kickdrums as Bruner unleashes his inner Pastorius to scrawl slippery six-string notes all over the track. His none-too-subtle title proves a snug fit on two counts: the infectious melodic squiggles, downright wonderful falsetto and delirious rushes of hypercolour are all obvious signposts for the heady party mood Bruner finds himself spinning through; that said, arguably the greater trick is that in tossing out goofball moments like pondering “where the bathroom is”, slickly breaking the ice with a female compatriot by enquiring as to the material of her purse (“Is it leather? Or it could be suede?”) and comically drawling “buhhhhh, oh shit I’m fucked up” as the beat takes a breather, he displays a canny knack for the rarely doted-upon art of getting away with chatting absolute rubbish while spangled. The stuffed mix somehow feels uncluttered, as Ellis sheds almost all trappings of the LA experimental hip-hop scene he remains the exalted figurehead of, instead shooting for futuristic funk’n’b greatness and nailing it with aplomb. Standing on 2013’s halfway line this looks like a genuine track of the year contender, as there are few if any that come close to touching the sheer glee spilling out onto the dancefloor. It stands proudly amongst a cluster of bona fide bangers – “O.N.E.,” “Flutes,” “Heartbeats” – that could have feasibly been global chart smashes at one point in time or another. All told, it really is the absolute fucking jam.

And it’s not to say that “X” towers over the record either; there’s no shortage of quality here, just that little exudes the sunny optimism found on that standout, instead opting for a more appropriately downcast tone. The excellent “Heartbreaks + Setbacks” is even more straightforward, marrying flickers of vintage guitar licks with a sparkling veneer, over which Thundercat flits between hope and despondency, seemingly unable to make his mind up about a flatlining relationship. At first glance it’s easy to peg the urgency in the song down to giddy rushes of emotion, before realising he is locked in a race against the clock, desperately clutching at straws as he tries not to “let the love stop flowing from me to you.” He does an admirable job of conveying emotion in his voice, oft imbuing wordless vocals with a very real sense of pain, and masking a range that, while not limited, occasionally fails to match his ambition. This too is apparent on “Tron Song,” an unbelievably sweet mesh of electric piano slides and a clacking beat, wherein Bruner serenades his cat with reassurances not to worry about his departure (genuinely), playing out like a long-lost Innervisions demo retooled for a contemporary audience.

That hint of Wonder shines through on the closing pair of tracks, revealing a cinematic dimension to Bruner’s work never fully flexed before. The brief interlude of “We’ll Die” segues neatly into “A Message for Austin / Praise the Lord / Enter the Void,” bringing a maelstrom of strings to wash over Bruner’s impassioned, cathartic paean to Peralta as he finally comes to terms with his close companion “entering the void forever”, leaving behind only one final run of virtuoso noodling and a gentle chiming coda akin to something out of an antique music box that slowly runs out of steam and fades, finally, to black.

There’s a wealth of sonic variety on display but the concise run-time – clocking in at a fraction over 40 minutes – keeps matters focused and thoroughly engaging, this being perhaps the greatest single influence Flying Lotus passes onto the record, even above the consistently rich production. Similarly, the constant gear-shifting could wind up as exhausting were it not underpinned by a tangible sadness across the whole set that ties it all together. The shock of Peralta’s passing has forced Bruner’s hand, leading him into confrontations about how to not only personally “drown everything out,” as on “Special Stage,” but positing wider existential questions about the fleeting nature of life. His method of approaching those acutely human matters of the heart is to push himself into interstellar overdrive. On lead-in “Tenfold” his heavenly cadence rises above the familiarly smudged, insistent basswork, floating weightless over the second verse’s precipice: “Who knows, maybe we’ll learn to fly?” The answer is self-evident – across Apocalypse, with loss never out of mind but cut loose from the gravitas of the situation on the ground, Thundercat positively soars.