Ok, so a few of you may be familiar with Mr Cat (Stephen Bruner to his friends), either from his recent role as bassist in LA superpunks Suicidal Tendencies or his collaborations with Erykah Badu and Flying Lotus. If it’s the former, this album will really come flying out of leftfield for you, but those comfortably familiar with the R&B stylings of Erykah and the space-tronica of Flying Lotus…well you’ll be in your element here.
This is Thundercat’s second full length effort and like its predecessor ‘The Golden Age of Apocalypse’, is co-written/co-produced by the aforementioned FlyLo. Even with his assistance the ‘Cat played most of the instrumental parts and composed the bulk of the material. Yeah so he’s a talented guy (I’ve seen his bass playing first hand and can completely vouch for that!), but primarily self-produced efforts can be pretty hit or miss affairs…so then…which of those affairs is Apocalypse?
Pleasingly Mr Cat (I’m sure he’d appreciate that formal contraction) has produced a pretty remarkable effort here. On first impressions it seems stylistically to draw upon modern R&B, minimalist electronica, maximalist electronica (I just invented it) and ambient soundscapes, but it’s impossible to pin it down to just those. Also making their presence felt after a few listens are jazz fusion, lush pop and Parliament-esque space funk!
As expected the bass guitar performances are pretty virtuosic, but the ‘Cat never goes overboard into wank-a-thon territory; all the basslines are perfectly suited to their environs….so much so that it takes a few listens to fully appreciate his dextrous fretboard navigations. The only other instruments on the album are synths, programmed drums, a touch of electric guitar and his voice… unfortunately none of these really match his bass playing in terms of technique and execution.
That being said, his multi tracked and reverb drenched vocals are surprisingly effective and bring just a hint of Marvin Gaye…or even The Beach Boys(!) to the album. Similarly, his keyboard playing is in no way egregious and he applies plenty of swirls & swells to add atmosphere and some really nice tinkling cadences and legato arpeggios; this is particularly exemplified in the third track “The Life Aquatic” which gives the album its first real deviation after the more R&B influenced first two tracks.
There are inherent giveaways that this a solo record though. The fact that he’s chosen to program drums rather than play them (something this reviewer has wisely done on many occasions) is probably the biggest pointer, but rather than try and hide this by burying them in the mix, he’s fully embraced their artificiality and on more than one track has applied a “drum solo”! “Lotus and the Jondy” has the best one…..haha, he actually programmed this sick solo and unbelievably it works really well with the rest of the track!
There are other examples of this sort of… “bedroom producer” approach. I must hurriedly point out that this is not to suggest the album is poorly engineered, far from it, it sounds great. But “Without You” begins with the familiar bleep-bloop-bloop-bloop of a click track and then…. surely the coup de grace of embracing the moment comes in probably the album’s best track “Oh Sheit it’s X”. Never mind the brilliant wobbly, watery basslines and sweet synth parts. Cat’s verses have a great call and response quality to them in which the harmonized backing vocals answer the lead vocals…..but at one point the lead turns to “Eeeeerrrrrhhhhhahaha” and without breaking stride, the backing vocals (still totally in time and tune) chime “Oh shit, I fucked up” and the song continues unabated! Awesome.
For the reasons mentioned previously, the standout tracks are “The Life Aquatic”, “Oh Sheit it’s X” and “Lotus and the Jondy”, but special mentions go also to the jerky electro-Beach Boys funk of “Tron Song” and the closing triptych “A Message for Austin/Praise the Lord/Enter the Void” which features some haunting and moving orchestral sounds along with the ubiquitous pulsating bass and bell-like synth lines.
This album is surprisingly multi-faceted (one could have expected heaps of soporific Billy Sheehan style bass shredding and not much else), but possibly due to the assistance of FlyLo, Thundercat’s sophomore effort is full of humour, tragedy (he recently lost close friend Austin Peralta), taste, eclecticism and groove.
If funky R&B and spaced out electronica is your bag then you’ll definitely enjoy this….as will any aficionado of the art of bass!