The issue isn’t how is Thundercat’s new album, Apocalypse (spoiler: it’s great). Instead, the issue is what is Thundercat’s new album? Is it space soul? Alien pop? The joyous return of jazz fusion? Bandleader Stephen Bruner zig zags song-to-song between each of these sounds with equal facility. But at some point — maybe it was the ecstatic Prince homage “Oh Sheit It’s X” that did it — Apocalypse started to coalesce as a funk album in my mind because it aligns itself much more closely with the grand concepts of classic funk, the cosmos of Funkadelic and the hellscapes of Curtis Mayfield. There is also real, profound loss at the album’s core. And it’s Bruner’s touching, humanist response to that loss that makes Apocalypse a truly great funk album, in the grand tradition of Slave and Funkadelic and Sly Stone.
I floated my thesis to some fellow music writers, though, and they were nonplussed: “I never really thought of Thundercat’s new stuff as funk, per se,” one replied. “It’s more like a Jaco Pastorius/Mahavishnu Orchestra freak-out.” I didn’t buy it.
I figured I’d go back to the source and talk to some of the originators of funk, the guys who picked up the torch lit by James Brown. Steve Arrington, who made his name as the drummer for seminal funk group Slave, agreed that Bruner could hang with the great funksters of old: “I heard him on Cosmogramma with [Flying] Lotus, and I noticed that he was funky.” Arrington was effusive about Bruner’s chops. “I just noticed his distinct voice on the instrument,” Arrington told me. “I noticed that he was very eloquent. He could play with speed and precision, and he was very musical. He doesn’t sound like anyone else.”
Bernie Worrell, keyboardist for Parliament/Funkadelic and humbling list of collaborators that includes Talking Heads, Fela Kuti, and Mos Def, met Bruner at a Red Bull Music Academy event in April. “He played me some of his videos,” Worrell said. “He’s a hell of a player. He can play, I would say, [just about] anything. He’s got the head for it and the ears for it.” Bruner told Worrell about some of his funk influences, and Worrell came away feeling like the younger musician was part of funk’s next generation: “I know he’s one of the cats, one of the youngsters.”
“He also mixes [styles], just like I do,” Worrell added. Paradoxically, the album’s polyglot nature makes its tie to classic funk that much stronger. VC Veasey and Anthony Hawkins of criminally under-appreciated acid rockers Black Merda influenced groups like Funkadelic even though they never really thought of their music as funk or psychedelia: “We don’t really see ourselves a funk band or a rock band … Everything we did, we just did because we liked it.” Apocalypse’s sonic palette is wonderfully varied: the aqueous descending keyboards of “Evangelion,” prehistoric avian guitar squawks on “Heartbreaks and Setbacks,” the otherworldly rumble of “Tenfold,” which signals the album’s opening like a giant mech robot flashing its warning lights through the fog. But just like the defining artists of the genre, wherever Bruner strays he seems to always come back to funk in the end.
Apocalypse also has a refreshingly light touch, and Bruner has a laudable willingness to laugh at himself: “Oh Sheit It’s X” is a laugh-out-loud funny chronicle of an ecstasy trip, complete with lines about not knowing where the bathroom is and a brief respite to admire a lady’s nice leather purse. Worrell commented that a sense of humor was an integral element of classic P-Funk. “George [Clinton] would take issues of the day and try to put a comical twist on them, to not be so serious,” Worrell said, “while at the same time hoping people will get the message.”
But Apocalypse isn’t merely a repository of interesting sounds or a collection of funny stories about getting faded. As I noted above, it’s also an album colored by the death of Bruner’s friend and collaborator, Austin Peralta, the brilliant jazz pianist who died last November at the age of 22. It’s Peralta’s passing that lends poignancy to Bruner’s lyrics, which might otherwise pass for stock-stoner mysticism. When Bruner sings, “I won’t forget you, even passing,” you know exactly who he’s talking to.
That sentiment continues with the heartbreaking triptych of a closer “A Message for Austin/Praise the Lord/Enter the Void” opens with a grand orchestral sendoff, a second line in space for Bruner’s dearly departed. “Thank you for sharing your light with the world,” Bruner sings over pomp and circumstance worthy of Hans Zimmer. The track transitions into a ruminative danse macabre of twinkling keys and tribal drums, slowly fading out over the album’s remaining minute, the darkness swallowing us like it did Austin.
It’s this loss that pegs Apocalypse as a true funk album more than anything else. Because Maggot Brain didn’t just groove hard: it announced the third pregnancy of Mother Earth. Prince opened Purple Rain by gathering his dearly beloved to “get through this thing called life.” Sometimes the focus was more earthly, but the themes were still weighty. “Funk is an offshoot of blues,” Arrington said. “And those blues artists … had just come out of slavery. Some people … are [still] dealing with just making it from day to day.” Black Merda chronicled “the shit that was going down on the streets,” Veasey told me. “We were talking about the bad shit that was going down, making people aware of hypocrisy.”
Apocalypse is out now on Brainfeeder.
Steve Arrington is busy prepping the re-release of Steve Arrington’s Hall of Fame, Vol. 1. His new album Love, Peace, and Funky Beatz, a full-length collaboration with DāM-FunK, will be out soon on Stones Throw. Check out his 12″ single with Dam on the Stones Throw website.
Bernie Worrell is currently touring with the Bernie Worrell Orchestra, and their first EP will be out soon via PurpleWOO Productions. You can hear their first single, “So Uptight (Move On)” on their website.
Black Merda isn’t working on any new material right now, but VC Veasey and Anthony Hawkins remain active session players in and around Detroit.