Los Angeles-based bass wizard Stephen Bruner, aka Thundercat, began to turn heads under his feline moniker with a series of collaborative tracks on Flying Lotus’ Cosmogramma, most notably psychedelic single “Mmmhmmm,” displaying both Bruner’s pyrotechnic fretwork and smooth, soulful vocals. At the time, however, the Flying Lotus was the latest notch on a belt of musical accomplishments for Bruner, who has been a member of crossover thrash heroes Suicidal Tendencies since he was 16, and has likewise worked with artists ranging from jazz bass icon Stanley Clarke to Snoop Dogg, as well as Erykah Badu and Sa-Ra Creative Partners. As evident by his résumé, the man has some impressive range. But Bruner’s friendship with Flying Lotus’ Stephen Ellison has proven to be a fruitful one, however, as FlyLo has since returned Thundercat’s favor by producing his debut album The Golden Age of Apocalypse, as well as releasing it on his Brainfeeder label.
Bearing a saber-toothed cover illustration and a sample of his namesake cartoon’s protagonist Lion-O bellowing “Hooooo!”, Thundercat introduces himself with good humor and a sense of fun. But what unfolds from that point on is some serious cosmic funk. With the goal of turning hip-hop into the “new jazz,” Thundercat blends the beat-driven grit of the former with the exploratory, improvisational aspect of the latter. The result is often closer to jazz than hip-hop, but Thundercat’s own mutant hybrid is in a galaxy all its own, weirdly melodic and accessibly showy. It’s an interplanetary jam session, or the sole discotheque where technique matters as much as groove.
Groove, however, is a major and essential part of Thundercat’s raison d’etre. He builds staircases of low-end funk amid endless walls of keyboards and sweeping strings on “Boat Cruise,” which is definitely the most musically adventurous cruiseliner I’ve ever witnessed. Yet at times, as on the amazing “Daylight,” his effects-laden groove bursts are closer to Squarepusher via the Jacksons. A heavy dose of Thundercat’s ’70s fusion influences shine through on The Golden Age of Apocalypse, particularly those of Stanley Clarke and George Duke, and making it more explicit, Bruner includes a cover of Duke’s “For Love I Come,” done in more laid-back blissful fashion. Still, Thundercat’s original material is the far more interesting focal point here, be it the hazy soul of “Seasons,” the sputtering and complex jams of “Fleer Ultra” or the dense analog throb of “Jamboree.”
When Bruner steps behind the microphone to croon his way through an upbeat pop highlight like “Walkin’,” he’s a surprisingly understated but certainly charming and smooth vocalist. As a mostly instrumental album, though, The Golden Age of Apocalypse is a mesmerizing showcase for Bruner’s instrumental prowess, his electric bass skills transmitting as mind-blowing, likely even to the dangerously funk deprived. Flying Lotus may have lent some crackle and atmosphere, but this is Thundercat’s party, and anyone with even the slightest touch of jazz or funk in their blood is going to want to be here.
Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma
George Duke – The Aura Will Prevail
Dam-Funk – Toeachizown
Stream: Thundercat – “Daylight”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.