Daft Punk’s recent jaunt into antique-analog rootsiness may or may not signal a sea change in contemporary electronic production, but whatever the future holds, it’s worth remembering that these kinds of affectations have been echoing across the pop landscape for years. Picking up on the vinyl-influenced woolliness that’s always been a prevalent, if at times minor, strain in hip-hop and dance music, the tradition maintained by producers like J. Dilla and Madlib has given rise to the backward-glancing muscle of artists like Adrian Younge and Flying Lotus, who prize warm, vibrant textures shaped from live instrumentation and classic funk and soul-rooted sounds. Among these is Thundercat, a.k.a. Stephen Bruner, a talented producer and multi-instrumentalist whose sleepy first album, The Golden Age of the Apocalypse, helped identify the pleasures and pitfalls of this sort of analog fetishism.
Bruner’s new album, Apocalypse, is beset by most of the same issues as that previous effort, mostly rooted in the lethargy of his likable but often too-static production style. There’s more overall variety here than on The Golden Age, but the fact remains that these intertwined hodgepodges of unobtrusive keyboards, murmury vocals, and skittering percussion rarely sound like actual songs. Instead they resemble bumpers, intros, outros, and interludes, brief moments where instruments collude on bits of harmonic breeziness, and while these moments are routinely enjoyable, they’re rarely affecting or memorable. Even the few tracks that do let loose, like the closing drum breakdown on “Lotus and the Jondy” often feel detached, in this case more like end-of-track screwing around than any sort of energetic high point. Toning down the last album’s jagged, bass-heavy compositions, this one at times seems even more soporific, with brief bits of energy enveloped in otherwise drowsy tunes.
Forays into more structured songwriting like “Oh Sheit It’s X” are funkier and more bracing, while tracks like “The Life Aquatic” glimmer but don’t progress, sticking to a fixed ambient template, a condition worsened by vocal lines that often devolve into circular mantras. So even with intermittent singing, Apocalypse often resembles a collection of hip-hop backing tracks sans words, which isn’t necessarily bad, but requires more diversity and dynamism than this album possesses. This is in contrast to Flying Lotus’s recent Until the Quiet Comes, which embraced a similar vintage-meets-modern aesthetic, but which brought variety and variation to its smattering of short songs, aided by a broad selection of vocal and instrumental guests, including Bruner himself. Here Bruner again shows that he has the tools for crafting tuneful compositions, but presents little that’s dynamic enough to anchor an entire album, resulting in innocuous background burbles that never come off as especially attention-grabbing.