Thundercat has made a name for himself primarily as a virtuoso bass player (and he really is the business on that front), but his debut album, Golden Age of Apocalypse, has already done enough to prove his skill as both a composer and a songwriter. The follow-up, simply titled Apocalypse and released digitally on Brainfeeder this week, is a different beast. It is a retro-futurist sprawl, the likes of which has been attempted just recently by certain helmet-wearing Frenchmen, but for all its unexpected tangents and diversions, the album also has a real soul at its core and is an unexpectedly emotional journey.
The somewhat fragmented nature actually works a treat for the album’s first half. The songs are short, do not outstay their welcome, and in their brevity and fleet-footed change of direction, they remind me of Madvillainy in being a terrific kaleidoscope of ideas rather than a set of unfinished sketches.
Opener “Tenfold” displays a crisp and uncluttered production for which Flying Lotus has to take a certain amount of credit as the album’s executive producer. The track’s melody and bass line constantly loop back to their beginnings, with Thundercat’s vocals sounding like a stronger and less reedy Pharrell.
“Special Stage” sounds like some kind of New Age self-help philosophy but is guided by that spectacular bass playing, which makes up a mere element of the song rather than being the sole interesting thing about it. Thundercat certainly is not interested in virtuosity for the sake of it, and Apocalypse is all the better for it.
“The Life Aquatic” sounds like the kind of murky, underwater electronica that might have soundtracked journeys from the titular movie, and though it might appear to come a bit early in the album for an interlude, it is also necessary after what precedes it. After all, “Heartbreaks and Setbacks” is an extraordinary early high point, a thing of beauty that manages to be both summery and melancholy, contains breathless harmonies, emotional directness, and an enveloping warmth before a lush bass breakdown leaves you simply wanting to hit the repeat button.
Apocalypse’s other bona fide perfect song is “Oh Sheit It’s X,” a proper summer dance hit about nothing more than the joy of getting high and wasted. The funky warped bass and piercing strings give the song a ’70s feel, but the thrilling execution lifts it way beyond the level of pastiche.
In truth, when the songs lengthen out for the album’s calmer second half, a little of the magic is lost. “Without You” manages a similar trick to last year’s “Sweet Life” by Frank Ocean in recalling Stevie Wonder in his seventies prime (no mean feat), but the songs that follow tend to meander rather than find a groove.
Fortunately, Apocalypse’s longest song and finale turns out to be both an engrossing listen and an emotional sucker punch. “A Message For Austin / Praise The Lord / Enter The Void” is an explicit and direct tribute to Austin Peralta, the magical pianist and fellow Brainfeeder artist who tragically died late last year at the age of 22. The production avoids spilling into cheap sentimentality and instead feels like something of a sonic stairway to heaven before a deceptively low-key breakdown brings the album to a close.
That song is perhaps the best demonstration of the album’s greatest strength in that it is an unapologetically straightforward presentation of one man’s vision of his art. Lyrically, Apocalypse verges on the simplistic, but the delivery and technical mastery of the music means you could never accuse Thundercat of cutting corners. On a label that prides itself on looking forward with a nod to the past, he is both an anomaly and a perfect fit, and the album represents another minor triumph both for its creator and for the most interesting imprint in Los Angeles.
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