Being technically competent at your instrument is a funny thing. Rather than making your music better, it all too often leads to the sort of indulgent fret wanker-y that is so beloved of ponytailed guitar shop douchebags. It’s the equivalent of showing off to your mum that those pricey guitar lessons she paid for were worth it, but in this case your mum is an unkempt 35-year-old bloke in a Tool T shirt, who has the complete discography of Steve Vai on his Ipod classic… a disturbing thought, to say the least. So yes, playing an instrument really, really fast is all well and good, but it isn’t of much use if you don’t have any songs to back up all that virtuosity with.
Which brings us to Stephen Burner aka Thundercat, who happens to be ludicrously good at the whole playing bass thing. But thankfully, his prodigious skill for the most part avoids falling into a display of tedious indulgence. Burner played as a session musician for the likes of Bootsy Collins, Erykah Badu and Snoop Dogg, but really came to attention when he partnered up with Flying Lotus. Thundercat’s bass played a crucial role in creating the brain bursting jazz-tinged insanity of Flylo’s recent output, and he’s found a fitting home amongst the ever-excellent psychedelic beatmaking of the Brainfeeder set.
New album ‘Apocalypse’ largely continues in the same euphoric spaced-out jazz funk vein as his debut album, but in its best moments, finds a new focus that proves thrillingly powerful when it all comes together. Album opener ‘Tenfold’ opens up in a satisfyingly propulsive manner, while ‘Heartbreak + Setback’ finds Thundercat adding a vaguely R&B sensuality to his sound, leading to what might be the best single track he’s yet done.
Elsewhere ‘Oh Sheit It’s X’ is a full-on funk stomper, featuring a bass line that practically offends in its funkiness. Most intriguing is album closer ‘A Message for Austin/Praise the Lord/Enter the Void’, a eulogy dedicated to tragically deceased Brainfeeder musician – and personal friend of Thundercat – Austin Peralta. It’s a remarkably soaring and uplifting song given the morbid subject matter, and is genuinely touching in its optimistic sincerity about what lies beyond.
These songs are all excellent, and if the album had maintained that level of consistency it might have shaded into genius, but sadly the rest falls short, frequently lapsing into a pleasant but slight flexing of Thundercat’s considerable chops. Yet overall ‘Apocalypse’ is a worthwhile listen, and it’s a damn sight better than the guff so beloved by those sweaty guitar-shop types.