The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam
Thundercat’s influence is already immense, even if much of the music-loving populous has never heard of the bass playing, singing and songwriting wunderkind.
That influence is all over Kendrick Lamar’s chart-topping, game-changing hip-hop masterwork “To Pimp A Butterfly,” along with a few of his compatriots, among them Flying Lotus and Kamasi Washington. Thundercat – aka Stephen Bruner – shines in every setting, but it’s a solo artist and band-leader that he shines brightest, as the freshly released “The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam” makes plain.
As a bassist, Bruner has few, if any, contemporary equals. He’s a dazzlingly virtuosic player who blends funky lines with lush chord arpeggios, all played on his hollow-body six-string bass. But this new effort is not all about that bass, at least wholly – it’s about the songs, the way that Bruner has crafted them, the way he sings them in a voice dripping with soul, and the way they seem to effortlessly bridge gaps between funk, R&B, jazz, hip-hop, dreamy psychedelia, and epic multimovement prog-soul.
Opener “Hard Times” suggests what it might have sounded like had Isaac Hayes worked with Todd Rundgren in a world where progressive music and Philly Soul were not deemed mutually exclusive; “Song for the Dead” displays the influence of recent Radiohead releases, but also moves along with a thrust and parry that is more R&B than it is experimentalism; “Them Changes” is swampy funk with an undeniable groove and some gorgeously emotive falsetto work from Thundercat during the periodic bridges; “Lone Wolf & Cup” forms the album’s emotional center, as Bruner drops an ethereal vocal melody atop a complex but propulsive bass arpeggio figure, and guest Herbie Hancock contributes washes of synth-strings and funky interjections.
This is broadly conceived and consistently daring music, and it suggests that Bruner is one of the most significant artists making music that might be considered to fit beneath the “pop” umbrella. He’s stretching an envelope that badly needs stretching.
- Jeff Miers