Sunday, April 19, 2015

Album Review: A sneak peek at the new Canibus & Bronze Nazareth record Time Flys, Life Dies...Phoenix Rise

This year's local SXSW festival was a mostly low-key one for me but I did have one eventful and exciting evening. It began with an "experiential marketing" promo for one of my favorite films from last year, Interstellar, wherein participants donned headphones and an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset to transport to a spaceship making its way toward a wormhole. It was my first encounter of Oculus Rift, something I've often heard about recently but never thought I'd actually get to try out.

It was about as amazing as I could have expected, especially when the Interstellar spaceship shifted into zero gravity mode. Somehow the immersion in Oculus Rift's virtual reality actually made it feel like I was floating, while I could see the ringed planet Saturn, in all its glory, just outside the ship's window.

Shortly thereafter, sitting in a truck parked near the Interstellar promo tent, I had the privilege of partaking in a full listening session for the upcoming album by Canibus & Bronze Nazareth Time Flys, Life Dies...Phoenix Rise. The conjunction of these two experiences seems oddly fitting. The gravelly voiced lyrical scientist known as Canibus has been providing high-tech rhymes for nearly two decades now. A virtual reality experience putting you on board a spaceship traveling toward a wormhole is exactly the type of thing Canibus tends to rap about. It's also not out of the realm of possibility that the dictionary-scouring wordsmith already coined the term "Oculus Rift" on some long-winded track from a dozen years ago.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

MLB 2015 Predictions, Part 2: American League

Mookie Betts. Familiarize yourself. Say it over and over again. Mookie Betts. [AP photo]

Continuing along, a bit late, with my predictions for the new baseball season, using the Baseball Prospectus PECOTA projections for the 2015 season. Normally I like to get these out of the way before the season starts, but it's been an extremely busy time for me lately. Mostly because of this. (Once again, the win numbers at BP have inevitably changed slightly since I captured them here, they remain in flux as the season goes on.)

The American League saw so many big moves made over the winter that it's harder than ever to determine with any confidence how things may take shape. If every team had full health all around, there would likely be extreme parity in the AL with lots of teams finishing with win totals in the mid-80s. Out of 15 teams, I count only 3 that are good bets to be really bad: Twins, Astros, Rangers. Every other AL team expects to fight for a playoff spot. Every one of them is also constructed with obvious flaws or severely lopsided rosters.

AL East
These division standings could end up being jumbled into any combination imaginable and we oughtn't be surprised. The Rays and Yankees are most likely going to have down years, but both have enough talent on hand to conceivably compete, while the other three all have playoff aspirations.

1. Blue Jays
PECOTA: 80 wins
My pick: Over

With their best pitcher, Marcus Stroman, now out for the year with a torn ACL, I can't say that I've got a ton of confidence in this pick. But the addition of catcher Russell Martin alone makes the Jays a much better team and they were in the playoff race pretty much all of last season, only a terrible month of August (9-17 and outscored 132 to 86) knocked them out. Adding third baseman Josh Donaldson, one of the game's best all-around players the past two seasons (14.1 total fWAR, behind only Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen) to an already powerful lineup certainly helps too.

Just like the Red Sox, the Jays are expected to have one of the highest-scoring offenses in the game, but the pitching, which features two late-career vets and three youngsters, has lots of question marks. Can R.A. Dickey harness his knuckleball well enough to pitch more like an above average starter than an amusing sideshow? Will 24-year-old Drew Hutchinson build on his solid first full season in 2014? Can the kids (Daniel Norris and Aaron Sanchez, both 22) handle a full season of pitching for a contending big league team?

It's a top-heavy roster and the bottom has enough youth for some breakout potential so there's plenty of reason for optimism. With the Royals ending their playoff drought last year, the longest streak of missing the postseason now belongs to the Blue Jays. I don't think that streak will carry much further.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

MLB 2015 Predictions, Part 1: National League

Reigning MVP Andrew McCutchen and the Pirates will look to finally overake the Cardinals.
Spring has sprung and a new baseball season is upon us. As is the usual tradition around here, I'm going to share my predictions for the season's outcome using the Baseball Prospectus PECOTA projections* for how many wins each team will have and noting whether I pick them to finish with a better or worse record.

*The win numbers are from a few days ago. They may have changed a bit since then but I'm sticking with what I've got. Reminder: the PECOTA projections are generated for each team based on the sum of individual player projections.

Must admit, I did pretty damn good with National League picks last year, getting 13 out of 15 picks correct and coming very close to nailing the other two. Part of that is just that the NL is kinda predictable right now. They've had the same upper echelon of elite teams for a few years (Nationals, Cardinals, Dodgers, Giants, Pirates) and, from the looks of things, that ought to basically remain the same this year. If you look at the staff picks from both Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs there's a glaring monotony in their NL choices.

One thing pretty much everyone seems to agree on is that Washington and Los Angeles look like they could be the best teams in baseball. I so wish I could come up with some daring underdog pick to unseat either one of those guys, but unfortunately I'll have to concede to convention in that regard.

NL East

1. Nationals
PECOTA: 92 wins
My pick: Over

This is the final stand for a team that's been a beast the last three years despite never advancing past the first round of the playoffs. A handful of significant contributors are at the end of their contracts, including shortstop Ian Desmond, center fielder Denard Span, and starting pitchers Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann. Strikeout machine Max Scherzer was added onto an already deep pitching staff and Yunel Escobar will plug in the team's lone gaping hole at second base.

Their starting rotation from top to bottom (even including the 6th and 7th starters) should be the best in all of baseball and with potential MVP candidates Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon leading a stacked lineup, they could run away with the division. They're a safe bet to win 95 games, dominate all year and then get knocked out in the first round again.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Allure of Gravity's Rainbow and Its Mysterious Author

Japanese cover for Gravity's Rainbow

[Preface: Last year I developed a fascination with Timothy Leary's deep interest in author Thomas Pynchon & Gravity's Rainbow which led me to reach out to the highly knowledgable OG (Michael from Overweening Generalist) for his input on this topic. A lengthy e-mail discussion ensued and out of that grew a two-part crossover collaboration between "A Building Roam" and "Overweening Generalist". While my piece focuses on the intrigue of Gravity's Rainbow, Pynchon, and Leary's role in all of this, the OG further explores Leary's relationship with Pynchon's postmodern epic. So read my piece, go read OG's piece (entitled "Fugitive Thoughts: Timothy Leary's Reading of Gravity's Rainbow") and let us know what you think.]

What could possibly compel someone to read such a beastly and tedious book as Gravity's Rainbow? For me, it was a series of reinforcing recommendations that sparked a compulsive interest.

My initial fascination with the work of heralded author and notorious recluse Thomas Pynchon can be traced back to three events. First, I heard Michael Schur (aka Ken Tremendous), the creator of Parks and Recreation, tout Pynchon's work passionately on a baseball podcast a few years ago. That led me to at least familiarize myself with the author. Then, while discussing books once with my remarkably well-read friend Charlie, he insisted I read Pynchon's work, particularly Gravity's Rainbow, in response to both my love for Joyce and my interest in paranoia. And, most significantly, I was struck when I heard Dr. Timothy Leary rave about Pynchon and express intense adoration for Gravity's Rainbow in multiple lectures and interviews from the Psychedelic Salon podcast archives.

Leary flat out declared Gravity's Rainbow "the best book ever written in the English language" and hailed the genius of Thomas Pynchon on many occasions. While his pal Robert Anton Wilson was known to frequently evangelize about the genius of Joyce, Leary championed Pynchon as a literary god any chance he got. An old 1980s interview clip on YouTube shows Leary calling Pynchon his "hero" and the finest living writer, pleading for the aloof Pynchon to get in touch with him. There are accounts of Leary, stuck in solitary confinement during the mid-1970s, receiving and repeatedly reading the recently published Gravity's Rainbow. He also praises Pynchon in his autobiography Flashbacks, likening him to Joyce and Dante.

How great could this Pynchon guy possibly be to elicit such fervent admiration? Somehow a modern, contemporary writer being so historically special didn't seem possible to me. All the very best writers are dead, aren't they? My inquiries in Google brought back frequent comparisons to Joyce, especially holding up Gravity's Rainbow next to Ulysses and Moby-Dick as the grandest epics of Western literature. My fascination swelled.

*   *   *

Gravity's Rainbow made quite a splash when it landed in 1973. It was the third book to appear from the completely hidden-from-the-public-eye author Pynchon, whose writing had established a lofty reputation from his first novels V. (1963) and The Crying of Lot 49 (1966). A gigantic, densely elaborate and confounding epic, a huge messy tale revolving around German rocketry and the end of WWII, Gravity's Rainbow would go on to win the National Book Award (Pynchon sent comedian Irwin Corey to accept the award on his behalf) and generate controversy when it was unanimously selected for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction yet ultimately rejected because of a passage involving coprophilia. So turned off by the perversions of Pynchon, the Pulitzer board elected to give the prize for fiction to nobody. The Pulitzer board described the novel as "unreadable", "turgid", "overwritten" and "obscene" and, after reading the book, I can't help but agree wholeheartedly with each of those adjectives, though I certainly did enjoy the experience overall.

Despite some annoying, disturbing, and offputting qualities ("turgid" really sums it up well), it's undoubtedly a brilliant work of literature by one of the finest writers of the last hundred years. The New York Times lavished it with praise upon its release, likening it in scope to Ulysses and Moby-Dick, and Richard Lehmann-Haupt poured it on pretty thick in a humorous review published in the New York Times Book Review:
'The Adventures of Rocketman' 
Gravity's Rainbow is fantastic---fantastically large, complex, funny, perplexing, daring, and weird---weird as an experience you've never really been through before. Fantastic! ...  
So what can I tell you? That Pynchon writes like an angel and clowns like the very devil? ...  
Perhaps I can only say this: if I were banished to the moon tomorrow and could take only five books along, this would be one of them. And I suspect that's a feeling that's going to last.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Interview: Bronze Nazareth Talks About Feeding the Listener on Thought for Food Volume 3

Bronze Nazareth

As archaeologists dig up the buried objects and sculptures of ancient cultures made of bronze, Detroit producer/MC Bronze Nazareth, who raps about being "The monolith prepared to wait beyond the common length," shines underground, rewarding those listeners who venture beneath the surface. After debuting on Rza's Birth of a Prince 10 years ago, Bronze has become an underground king.

While his fellow next-generation Wu-Tang affiliate (and likewise metal-named colleague) Cilvaringz grasps for widespread attention and notoriety with publicity stunts like the single copy Once Upon a Time in Shaolin album, Bronze simply goes about his business, continuing to pile onto a resumé that's earned him the respect and interest of the elite practitioners of his artform. Besides putting in work with the entire Wu-Tang Clan, Sunz of Man, Killarmy, and producing albums for Timbo King and 60 Second Assassin, he's already crafted bangers for the likes of Immortal Technique, Kool G Rap, Tragedy Khadafi, Jedi Mind Tricks, Roc Marciano, Copywrite, Tragic Allies, La the Darkman, did a full album with Willie the Kid, and produced an upcoming album for hip hop legend Canibus (on that note, get ready to hear Pete Rock rap over a Bronze beat).

And that's just his outside work. Spearheading his own movement, Bronze has led his Detroit crew, The Wisemen, for a whole slew of group and solo projects. In the midst of this staggering workload, Bronze also blesses fans with his own solo efforts. The latest is Thought for Food Volume 3. The first solo Bronze release in three years, it's a bundle of twisted wordplay and abstract metaphors packaged up in a style of hip hop that's rugged as Michigan winters and dirty as a Detroit storm drain. A recurring metaphor on the record is the diamond trapped in a rough block of coal, likewise this Bronze batch as a whole is as beautiful as it is harsh. Go listen to and purchase it here.

The Bronze Bomber was generous enough to answer some questions about his newest release, mostly focusing on his unique lyrical approach as well as a consideration of the turbulence of our moment in history.

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