Golden Ages

The pre- and post-apocalypse from (where else?) L.A.

Despite its title, Thundercat’s Golden Age of Apocalypse hardly evokes nuclear fallout or drifting ash. In his 2011 debut, L.A. jazz bassist Stephen Bruner (Thundercat) envisions a post-doomsday utopia, like the mythical golden age he references, full of falsetto harmonies and orchestral swells.

The album’s fantasy-rich futurism isn’t surprising, considering it was helmed by Bruner’s L.A. cohort Flying Lotus, aka Steven Ellison, and released on the producer’s Brainfeeder label. A 28-year-old with a reported fondness for astral travel and marijuana-laced goldfish crackers, Ellison released his own trippy breakthrough Cosmogramma in 2010, which featured song titles like “Zodiac Shit” and folded harp solos, sampled hospital machines and Thom Yorke into its freewheeling mix.

Lotus-inspired quirks abound on Apocalypse. Syncopated blips and bells texture an otherwise simple melody on “Daylight.” Scattered handclaps confuse the rhythm of “Boat Cruise.” “Mystery Machine (The Golden Age)” is little more than a looped chord amid a dense fog of feedback.

But where Ellison dabbles in sonic chaos, Bruner shapes his combo of bass, keys and drums into something strongly resembling form. Aside from their mystical flourishes, “Boat Cruise” and “Daylight” both circle a handful of repetitive phrases. A brisk rhythm guides “Fleer Ultra” through riotous bass improvisation. “Walkin'” is a neo-funk breeze-along anchored by a steady beat that breaks into a peppy chorus of la-la‘s.

If you know your end-of-the-world lore, you’ll realize that Cosmogramma is the natural prequel to Apocalypse‘s post-disaster arcadia. Violent and extravagant, Ellison’s album is the doomsday Bruner glances back at, from its Dante-esque title—an arcane word about the study of heaven and hell—to the music itself, a blast of voices, lasers and drums that scatter like shards of shrapnel.

Ellison’s heady outbursts are likely glorious live. But blaring from a plastic disc (or, let’s be honest, a 13-inch screen), the compositions border on grandiose. They’re interesting, jarring and even at times moving. But between the artist’s dense philosophizing and musical iconoclasm, one gets the feeling he wants to transport listeners to the postworld plane that obsesses him—and sheer noise, however complex, simply won’t do the trick (although another goldfish might).

But where Cosmogramma gets lost in some timeless future-place, Apocalypse exists partly in the present, where people buy groceries and where time signatures mean something. With his many nods to funk, jazz fusion and good old-fashioned beats, Bruner’s playing is grounded in the familiar, while Ellison’s layers allow listeners to glimpse, briefly, his imagined future. Like Cosmogramma, Thundercat’s Apocalypse doesn’t do away with time, but in quiet, scattered moments, it conjures the duo’s timeless golden age.

Sonoma County Library