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Thundercat: The Beyond/Where Giants Roam

Thundercat: The Beyond/Where Giants Roam

This is the sound of an artist working through heartbreak and stifling grief the only way he can.

Thundercat: The Beyond/Where Giants Roam

3.75 / 5

Something is haunting Brainfeeder Records. The synapse-melting California label has been a proud producer of some of the most cosmic, feverish hip-hop, R&B and otherworldly genre-mixing releases in recent memory. But something changed; label boss Flying Lotus went from the astral plane raves of Cosmogramma to the afterlife meditations of You’re Dead!. Atmospheric beat producer Teebs even found sorrow sinking into the aquatic ruminations of E S T A R A. The ghost in the machine is the specter of Austin Peralta, a core artist in the Brainfeeder collective who died from a deadly cocktail of drugs that aggravated his pneumonia in 2012. Peralta’s death reverberated throughout Brainfeeder, but perhaps no one was as affected as Thundercat. The bass-wizard and merry prankster of Brainfeeder, Thundercat dedicated his 2013 album, Apocalypse, to Peralta, but his “mini-album” The Beyond/ Where Giants Roam feels like a full and proper wake for his friend, finding Thundercat’s usual buzzing talent focused into tear-soaked funk.

The change is startling. Thundercat (aka Stephen Bruner) was the guy wearing Dragon Ball Z outfits to his shows and making songs about two-day parties (“Oh Sheit it’s X”). Now it’s hard even to imagine him going into a Kamehameha stance in jest. The Beyond/Where Giants Roam has broken so far away from Bruner’s previous sentiments that, without his crystal clear voice, it would be hard to link the two sounds. Even his bass mastery has been toned down for the sake of the album’s emotional appeal. That’s not to say his work isn’t impressive (I’ve personally been trying to learn “Them Changes” on bass for the last week or so only to fail spectacularly) but it’s subtle rather than flashy. The grooves are understated so Bruner’s lyrics shimmer to the front. “I can’t feel my face/ Where’s this cold dark place?/ This must be the end” are the first words Bruner sings, with only soft piano chords holding up his mournful state. “God give me sight beyond sight” would have been, on another song, a funny nod to Thundercat’s cartoon namesake, but on “Hard Times” it only underlines Bruner’s wishes to see his friend again, even if it means traveling to a different dimension. “Song for the Dead” follows, more fleshed out than “Hard Times,” with thunking drums and Bruner’s bass weaving the foundation for his vocals, but the sub-three-minute song still feels skeletal.

The Beyond’s purpose, outside of easing Peralta’s spirit (and perhaps Bruner’s as well), is to cocoon the two longest pieces, “Them Changes” and “Lone Wolf and Cub.” “Lone Wolf and Cub” is the most sorrowful track, with Bruner’s woeful voice asking, “On your own/ Where will you go?” over and over. His multi-tracked voice seems to conjure the spirits of the river Styx, with long dead humans attempting to guide the uninitiated in the world of the deceased. It’s the only time we hear Bruner really produce one of his legendary bass solos, but the spiderly lines still feel restrained, as if going over the top could disrespect the departed.

But it’s “Them Changes” that serves as the centerpiece and the true reason for The Beyond’s creation. Not only will it likely top a number of year end lists, but it’s arguably the finest thing Bruner has made yet. It’s got some of his original DNA intact: chugging piano lines, blissed out bass melodies and his signature falsetto dot the sound, but there’s a pervasive and tangible sadness. “Them Changes” seems to focus on the second stage of grief: anger. “Where were you when I needed you the most?” Bruner asks over his melting bass, and he finishes the song by cooing, “Now I’m sitting here with a black hole in my chest/ A heartless, broken mess.” “Them Changes” touches on the emotions we’re supposed to restrain during the grieving process, the frustration at the universe for dealing such terrible, tragic cards. “Them Changes” also hints at failed romance (“Why in the world would I give my heart to you?/ Just to watch you throw it in the trash?”), but its Peralta’s ghost that still leaves the formative fingerprints.

The Beyond has already received plenty of gripes due to its short length and, to be sure, a full album of this emotionally potent funk is absolutely vital, but it doesn’t appear to be a record that was made for the rest of the world. This is the sound of an artist working through heartbreak and stifling grief the only way he can, countingacting loss by creating.

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