September 5, 2011
See also Ian Cohen's feature profile: Thundercat Emerges With His Debut, Co-produced by Flying Lotus
Better than: The Gobots' acid jazz project
Remember back in little league when the coach's kid couldn't hit, field or run for shit? Hell, maybe you were that kid - either way, there's a good chance you're familiar with the unwritten rule that right field is the place for the kid you can't get rid of who is clearly going to fuck up at some point.
Before recent trends made it OK for bands to have some random dude just beating the crap out of a floor tom or stare off into the middle distance while hovering over an unplugged Nord Lead, bass was for the most part the musical equivalent of right field. For every Flea and Carlos D. there was the type who held down the low end because he was too good of a drug connect to kick out of the band, or the lead singer was probably trying to sleep with them (Billy Corgan Conspiracy Edition).
So it's understandable that Thundercat's debut The Golden Age Of Apocalypse has become a critical sensation: not only is it the only jazz fusion record a lot of you will hear this year, but the fact that you come out of it thinking, "holy shit, that guy can play some sick bass guitar" makes it at the very least a novelty of epic proportions.
But regardless of his bizarre outfit that had me Googling "the Native American from Street Fighter" so I could come up with a "T. Hawk in space" joke, and the fact that he was preceded by a Flying Lotus DJ set (who admitted to being "high as fuck"), this is jazz. Thus, be forewarned: there will be solos. Lots of them. And you will applaud every 64th-note run as if you might never hear its likes again, because you probably won't.
For all of its charm and staggering technique, Apocalypse can sound a bit plastic and kitschy at times. Considering its heavy influence of video game soundtracks (Sonic The Hedgehog in particular), you wonder if the promised "full band performance" might involve a special appearance by Knuckles or Dr. Robotnik on the 1's and 2's or whatever. But then, a minute in, you remember, "Oh right, this guy is a ridiculous musician who knows a ton of other ridiculous musicians." The Echo's stage was cramped with a roster that occasionally bulged into double digits, including hometown luxuries like a second bass player (takes a lot of humility to be the "rhythm bassist," I reckon) and some tambourine rattler and backup vocalist named Erykah Badu. I suppose she was mostly there to tease us all about that FlyLo/Badu project that we still don't know enough about, but after a month dealing with hack stagehands at Rock The Bells and mildly entertaining beefs with D.O.C. , maybe she just felt like she needed a public event where she could minimally harmonize and maximally rock an awesome hat.
The set didn't lend itself to a lot of surprises in format. Mostly, The Golden Age of Apocalypse was played in its exact sequence. But dear lord...these guys can play. Usually, when you walk away from a debut's record release party pleasantly surprised, it's at how tight a band sounds. What was revelatory about Thundercat's band was how loose it was: compact and slick on record, "Daylight" was exploded into a lengthy odyssey of exploratory bass runs and sax squall; "Fleer Ultra" a stunning display of mixed-meter interplay.
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Undoubtedly, Apocalypse benefits from FlyLo's coproduction (in both sound and as a promotional tool), but once he left the stage, it becomes clear that both of these guys are equally excited to be in each other's presence. FlyLo thanked the crowd for making Apocalypse the #1 electronic record of the week, and if that categorization is accurate, then I'm hoping it inspires a live album: it might end up being the best live electronic LP ever made.
Ah, a note about the crowd itself. While there was plenty of the chin-stroking types that nodded in approval at every pentatonic run and silently judged The Echo's passable beer selection, I imagine most jazz shows don't find security routinely dragging out skinny white dudes on ecstasy who've finally crashed from dehydration because they've obviously been partying the entirety of Labor Day. After all, when you're unemployed, every day is Labor Day.
Critical bias: Show really peaked when Thundercat paused to call his profile in the current issue of LA Weekly, "the greatest accomplishment in the history of journalism."
Overheard: "Yeah, play that shit!" - an overly enthusiastic Thundercat fan about five minutes into an extended version of "Daylight," which promptly ended two seconds later.