Could 2011 be the Year of the Thundercat? Cartoon Network just unveiled a surprisingly watchable reboot of the ‘80s action staple and now bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Brunner, whose liquid basslines propelled Flying Lotus’s excellent Cosmogramma, is also attempting a reboot of sorts. With The Golden Age of the Apocalypse, he moves from sideman to solo artist, and serves up gnarly jazz-funk variations on L.A.-style electronica. Brunner’s impressive CV includes sessions with Erykah Badu and a 10-year tenure with Suicidal Tendencies, which means, as far as new listeners should be concerned, there’s nothing he can’t do with his bass. His stylistic breadth, not to mention his staggering arsenal of pedals, allows Brunner to pull off everything from lurching P-funk to free jazz to sugary video-game pop—and songs like “Fleer Ultra” and “Jamboree” sometimes aim to nail the whole spectrum in a single, three-minute go.
Brunner’s also given a helping hand by Flying Lotus, who produced the album and flavors it with some of his own signature beat experiments. These are two of the smartest, most sophisticated guys doing electronic music right now, and when they marry their avant impulses to decent pop tunes, as on “Is It Love” and the George Duke cover “For Love I Come,” the results are endlessly engrossing. “Mmmhmm,” the tune that Brunner sang on Cosmogramma, seems to be the template for most of The Golden Age of the Apocalypse, with Brunner using his falsetto to lace breezy melodies over the album’s amorphous funk. If none of those melodies are as memorable as the one from “Mmmhmm,” a point which is almost conceded outright when that song’s “Just be who you are” hook is reprised as an interlude, it’s worth noting that the vocal lines are meant as accents to musical arrangements that are plenty interesting in their own right.
At least that’s the idea. But Brunner’s somewhat colorless singing is just one of the reasons why The Golden Age of the Apocalypse is as easy to drift out of as it is to drift into. The album’s ruling aesthetic principle is the uninterrupted ebb and flow of rhythm, but after a while it feels less like careening through the Milky Way and more like being stranded in orbit. For a guy who perfected his chops playing thrash metal, Brunner has created an intensely sedated album; by the time you arrive at the Michael-Jackson-on-morphine R&B of “Walkin,” you’ll be jonesing for a proper chorus, or else the kind of curveball that Flying Lotus would throw on one of his own LPs. It’s puzzling that two musicians who have proven both their creativity and chemistry in the past have ended up with a product that feels unfinished—particularly since so many songs peter out after just two minutes of noodling. A little muscle, and maybe even a little heavy-metal menace, would have balanced the album out nicely. I don’t begrudge Thundercat his blissed-out psych-funk, but as anyone who’s heard Maggot Brain in its entirely can attest, it doesn’t hurt to let every third or fourth trip be a bad one.