Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Album Review(s): THE YEAR OF BRONZE



"Still standing, unweathered Bronze monolith"
- Lord Jessiah

Here in Austin, Texas the SXSW festival kicks off this weekend. It was almost exactly a year ago that I got to meet up with my old friend M-Eighty in the heart of the SXSW madness to hang out (along with Tash from the Alkaholiks providing comic relief) in order to receive an exclusive listening session of the then-soon-to-be-released album from Canibus & Bronze Nazareth, Time Flys, Life Dies...Phoenix Rise (written about here last year).

That album would end up being the opening salvo in an impressive series of Bronze-produced full-length releases that dropped in the ensuing months. Further solidifying his status as a 21st century successor to RZA, Bronze the heavy instrumentalist out of Detroit crafted four different LPs in 2015, each with its own consistent, cohesive sound, essence and theme while even placing the spotlight on individual members of his group to the give them some shine. Aside from the Canibus LP and a collaboration with Killarmy legend Dom Pachino, in 2015 Bronze produced each of the debut solo albums for members of his Wisemen crew Illah Dayz and Salute.

That's four albums in a twelve month span (five if you count Bronze's solo project from November 2014, Thought for Food Volume 3). It was truly The Year of Bronze.

This prolific output also occurred in the aftermath of Bronze losing his brother and close collaborator Kevlaar 7 who departed the physical due to complications from a blood disorder in December 2014. Listening to the albums that make up The Year of Bronze, one continually gets a sense that it was all a dedication to Kevlaar. (#DoingItForKev) Many of The Year's best songs are ones Bronze spent ample time mixing and mastering his brother's verses and microphone presence on. Posthumously released Kevlaar verses and beats (every single one of them dope) played an important part in The Year of Bronze, as we will see.

Even after releasing four albums of undeniably towering quality throughout the year, Bronze continued to get a raw deal from the hip hop press. Aside from some discussion of the Canibus project (and reviews by the prolific writer Sunez Allah), the hip hop media as a whole mostly ignored The Year of Bronze. In contrast, Bronze's colleague Cilvaringz received consistent press throughout the year for the gimmick of producing a Wu-Tang album that the world will likely never hear. The Cilvaringz vs. Bronze Nazareth debate for best producer is a close one, but while Cilvaringz in his career has made one album, a few features, and an overhyped record that will likely never escape the clutches of our world's Lex Luthor, Bronze served the people four full-length albums in 2015 alone.

The super producer with the overflowing resumé is also a fierce lyricist whose abstract angled bars consistently reveal the architect brain behind the beats he's built a reputation for. While The Year of Bronze was a showcase of the latest efforts from hip hop's premier beat maker, throughout the albums he orchestrated, Bronze also got to step into the booth and shred it up with his rhymes a few times.

What follows is a walkthrough of The Year of Bronze, highlighting its best moments while especially taking note of the role played by the late Kevlaar 7 throughout.





I. 
Time Flys, Life Dies... Phoenix Rise 
by Canibus
Produced by Bronze Nazareth
Released May 12, 2015

Two of the best living practitioners of the hip hop craft, lyrical legend Canibus and instrumental landscape painter Bronze, created a sonic trip, inviting along for the ride some of the other stars of the craft like Killah Priest, Raekwon, Pete Rock, and others. It might be the best album the 20-year-vet Canibus has ever released. Canibus is a word freak, a rhyme maniac, a verbal titan and he's never had an album so full of top-notch quality beats as this one.

In what might be his most high-profile project to date, Bronze's beats sound as crisp and well-mastered as anything he's produced since Wu-Tang Meets the Indie Culture. If not for a few inexplicable appearances from other producers and the lone weak track "This is Rome", this would be a masterpiece.

Highlights:
The eight-minute autobiographical odyssey "Audiobiography" certainly stands out with its four colorful storytelling verses from Canibus over Bronze's head-nodding, hi-hat-heavy snares. In "Bronze Horses" (feat. Killah Priest) and "Battle Buddies 4 Life" (feat. Dizaster), Bronze managed to make two entirely different beats that both rely on dark, twisted piano loops---the former is a nasty organ sample flip, the latter a fast-paced mortuary march with vintage Killarmy rawness. The best part of the album for me is the four-track sequence from "Matte Blk Rapana" through "Igloo Music". Any one of those songs could be considered the best track on the album. Within that sequence, "Mr. Montana...Thank You" is an especially powerful joint, a quintessential Bronze beat with a great deal of emotion built up by its symphony of horns and moaning background vocals. But my favorite track may actually be the closing song "Couldn't Get Around It", a shift in tone from the record's rough, dark sound into a more contemplative feeling. Again, Bronze evokes an emotional state through his weaving of sounds, this time using a vocal sample as instrument, letting the voice lilt along with a smooth-tempo drumline and meandering bass. It's a beat I can listen to over and over again.




Kevlaar Memoriam:
Completed shortly before his passing, this was Kevlaar's favorite album that his younger brother Bronze had produced to date. One can easily see why. In a year of four albums produced, this might be the best one. Bronze briefly mentions Kevlaar on "Matte Blk Rapana" promising to keep going strong until they meet again: "Kevlaar haloes, when I rise we gon' polly kid/ meanwhile demolishing, disembowelment." On the same track he also summarizes the emotional state of his grieving family with the startling image of: "Matte black clouds on top of my family opera."

The iTunes version of the album came with a bunch of bonus tracks including a solo Bronze joint called "Armsling". This unique track is Bronze at his finest---an onslaught of intense abstract wordplay, obscure allusions ("animation swivel Michael Milton's curved saber") and surreal juxtapositions of imagery over a stuttered-drum beat whose vocal sample rises to piercing heights. Besides the voice of Kevlaar that can be subtly heard in the background playing hype man, Bronze pays explicit homage to his brother's brain-bending poetry: "A Kevlaar scripture, I swim a kerosene river/ Bleed metal anointing white flames and choral slivers." The song also features one of the sickest lines I've ever heard Bronze utter: "Cumulous cloud in my Dutch Master/ Sai handles I clutch faster/ than hummingbirds' wings flap/ when lofty on cocaine pastures."



II.
The Illahstrator
by Illah Dayz
Produced by Bronze Nazareth & Kevlaar 7
Released May 15, 2015

This was the first Wisemen record released after the passing of key member Kevlaar 7 and one can sense that there is a somber undertone throughout. Probably the most prevalent theme during the career of Bronze and the Wisemen has been perseverance through adversity. This album stars Illah Dayz, a motor-mouth flowing emcee who became paraplegic after suffering a car accident following one of the Wisemen's early recording sessions ten years ago. We've caught a few glimpses of Illah Dayz featuring on tracks before and Bronze has expressed his guilt and remorse about the events that led to the accident in a few of his lyrics ("Illah Dayz seen iller days, wheels peeling in a maze/ Sometimes it rains in my brain, hard to maintain"-- "Welcome Home"), but here we get our first full exposure of the rapid-flowing, inspiring, and perseverant Illah Dayz.

I admittedly did not expect much from this project because, while Illah has a natural talent for flowing bars, he often spits so fast that he doesn't enunciate and his words blend together. I doubted whether he could carry an entire album. Yet the music and feeling of this paralyzed and street-scarred man is irresistible. The Illahstrator is a fantastic album, filled with rough stories and harsh realities yet so enjoyable to listen to. I come back to it constantly. Illah Dayz has a definite knack for writing catchy hooks that aren't trite and while his rhymes do fly right past you on first listens, you eventually start to catch more pieces of his striking imagery. His relish for rapping crazy shit reminds me of Ol' Dirty Bastard who he even shouts out at one point in an exemplary rhyme: "Fish you out the pond, code name is Rapper John/ blowing like a bomb, feel crazy as Ason/ peace my brother, knowledge to understand and discover."

Bronze plays the role of director, providing most of the beats (Kevlaar produced three of them) and dropping one verse while otherwise present in the background stitching the album together toward a complete package. With its soulful and resilient feeling throughout, featuring so many excellent beats, this is one of my favorite Wisemen releases ever.




Highlights:
When I first heard the single "I Roll a Route" I had a minor epiphany. I had often wondered whether producers who rely on sampling could eventually run out of new beats or see their originality start to run dry because of the nature of their craft. There's only so many dope samples one can dig up, right? When the kick-snare and howling ghosts of that opening track came on I realized for an artist like Bronze, fresh beats are endless. He seems so at one with his technique that beat-making through sample-chopping is as infinite in its possibilities as a dude playing an instrument. He is a musician. "I Roll a Route" made me envision him just banging on bongos and howling out soul.

The Illahstrator is an album carried by its soulfulness. The premier track is "Brother in Law", a classic boom-bap joint whose sweet strings create a feeling of reminiscence, looking back wistfully while moving forward with resolute acceptance. Kevlaar 7 appears on the track with his signature deep poetry reflecting: "Sand in hour glasses slide down my synapses/ Practice living lavish with Bud ice and blunt ashes/ the Promised Land lapses." And by a poignant device, Bronze appears on the track alongside his lost brother rapping about "Sipping for bulletproof Kevlaar who shine like the north star/ pour far more for my man than a sports bar."

Despite him being confined to a wheelchair, the best tracks on Illah Dayz's album actually both center around women. "Cinnabunz" is a masterpiece of dancing flutes and strings, a beautiful Bronze melody over which Illah delivers alternately raunchy and heartfelt poetry: "I want you all for self/ to eat you up until there's none left/ You got me open and spinnin'/ Hoping it's never ending." On the other hand, "No Names" is a grimy portrait piece, detailing the lives of three prostitutes. Through three verses, Illah describes the tragedies of lost souls selling their bodies over Bronze's opera of wails and violins. It's a dark, emotional track with stories of beautiful dime pieces ending up strung out on crack---it is also the best track on the album.

Kevlaar 7 Reincarnated In Poetry:
As I mentioned above, this was the first Wisemen album since Kevlaar passed and a somber elegiac feeling is indeed present: from Illah Dayz's requiem for the deceased on the intro to Bronze's "sipping for bulletproof Kevlaar" on "Brother in Law", the palpable feeling of resilience on "Check the Mode" and the closing of the soulful "Black Bottom" with Illah repeating calls of homage to the friend who discovered him and brought him on board. With the living voice of Kevlaar appearing for three memorable verses, including thoroughly slicing and dicing through "Crazy" and "Still Aim", plus producing three of the beats on the album, The Illahstrator is imbued with the presence of the deceased spiritual leader of the Wisemen.


III.
War Poetry
by Dom Pachino (of Killarmy)
Produced by Bronze Nazareth
Released August 15, 2015

This is, for the most part, a militant, bloody, nasty, angry, and raw hip hop record. Wu-Tang fans celebrated when one of the original core Killa Beez, Dom Pachino of Killarmy (part of the inner circle Wu family, as Method Man recently emphasized), linked up with Bronze for a full length album resurrecting the rough, aggressive, adrenaline rap that so fired up Wu-Tang and Killarmy fans since the beginning. When Killarmy came up in the late 90s they represented the younger generation of the Wu family tree, younger brothers and cousins of the generals like Rza and Ghostface, feisty and reckless kids who imposingly guarded the front lines of the massive Wu-Tang conglomerate. War Poetry is a return to form for Dom P, one of the finest lyricists in Killarmy, who fires loud shots against the industry of posers and fakers who've risen to rap prominence in recent history: "My whole team is gooned out/ and if half wasn't locked up/ I'd bring my platoon out/ To smack you in ya silver spoon mouth."

Highlights:
Much of this album contains attacks launched against the rap industry and fake rappers with what Raekwon dubbed "punch-you-in-the-face" music; tracks like "Haunted Dreamz", "Warheadz", and "9 Henchmen". On "Haunted Dreamz" Bronze flips a familiar Billie Holliday sample into rugged magic with a filthy drum line; the explosive battle rap energy of "Warheadz" is sparked by an old classic Bronze beat with wailing choral voices and an urgent piano loop sounding like the walls are caving in; and "9 Henchmen" is a drum-heavy posse cut featuring a whole slew of familiar Shaolin emcees like Shogun Assassin and Shyheim, finished off by the album's lone Bronze verse, "Cobra venom mixed with John Lennon musical fumes." Other favorites of mine are "Guilty Conscience" featuring the always underrated Sunz of Man member Prodigal Sunn and "Sin of Tera" featuring the currently incarcerated Killarmy dart master Killa Sin. On an album so filled with violence, the best track may actually be the one titled "Unconscious Kiss" with its rising and falling smokey lounge beat (another impressive chopping of a well-known sample) and guest appearances by Busy da God as well as Wisemen luminaries Phillie and Lord Jessiah, the latter of whom unexpectedly steals the song with a phenomenal verse.



IV.
Diggstown
by Salute da Kidd
Produced by Bronze Nazareth & Kevlaar 7
Released September 18, 2015

Not long before popping up in the newest Quentin Tarantino flick, the voice of Bruce Dern made a comeback into culture here on Diggstown, an album using the 90s B movie of the same name to thread its theme together (the title refers to Detroit's Diggs housing projects where Salute da Kidd hails from). Much like The Illahstrator, Bronze once again plays the role of director here, carrying the burden of completing and releasing the debut solo album from Wisemen member Salute who was sentenced to 10 years in prison before the record was finished. This final installment in The Year of Bronze has some ups and downs, featuring some of the best and worst songs of the 2015 album quartet.

With Kevlaar 7 featured heavily throughout, it's another record permeated with a sense of deep pain and powerful resilience, introduced by the windy, ghostly howling voices that open the album on the title track. One of the strongest tracks, "Forty Horses", describes "Kev's soul guarding the fortress" in the chorus while on the same song Phillie pleads for the innocence of Salute, noting the close calls with the law each member of the crew has had, "It made us all wiser/ Illah you a tiger/ no zoo can hold you/ Wisemen triumph/ high science/ the past is the past/ I'm inspired." On the same track, Bronze describes the "Wisemen gondolier/ moving up shit creek without a fear," an image that sums up his team's tenacity through troubled times.

The incarcerated Salute brings gusto, confidence, and an array of sharp street raps dominated by one-liners and clever wordplay. While his flow and voice both sound great over the beat, there isn't much versatility to his style. He shines when firing off clever darts with swagger, but when he ventures into other thematic territory it seems to fall flat. His best moments are on tracks like "Slow Leak", "Forty Horses", and especially "Black Aerosmif" where he can just let loose with his confident, clever darts. But on more reflective joints like "Nothin' to Lose" or "Lord What Did I Do Wrong?", even though the feeling is sincere and the lyrics are solid, the charisma fades, making him sound a bit forced. The 14-track album has a handful of skippable songs, but the entire rest of it is pure flames, as dope as anything in The Year of Bronze.

Highlights:
The middle stretch of this album ("Forty Horses"---"Horoscope"---"Three Weeks"---"Black Aerosmif") is simply amazing. With a powerful beat led by cinematic strings and brolic drums, "Forty Horses" is ear candy; a classic Wisemen posse cut. Much like the mid-90s Wu-Tang solo projects, each individual Wisemen album heavily features the rest of the team. This excellent four-track sequence, each song involving other members of the crew, is representative of what this group is capable of at its very best---creative, thoughtful lyrics coalesced around a collaborative theme over uniquely chopped and sequenced beats, often with hard drums. It's an all star formula.

What fascinates me about this kind of album---a solo project from a member of a larger group---is how the star of the show, even on the group songs, commands extra attention and has a kind of dominant energy. This is Salute's album and he is not to be outshined by anybody. Thus his verses stand out on tracks like "Forty Horses", "Horoscope", and especially the twitchy, fast-paced flow showcase "Black Aerosmif". The track I keep returning to, though, is "Slow Leak" which is solely Salute for three verses. First, the beat from Bronze is straight up bold. On the surface it's bare bones, almost lo-fi; a muffled string loop behind a steady electronic interference hum plus recurring vinyl crackle. Yet there's a complexity there, hinted at by the drumline, that one starts to catch onto upon repeated listens. Salute sounds phenomenal over this beat, his voice and laid back yet forceful delivery meld with the bizarre Bronze vibe seamlessly.  

Posthumous Kevlaar:
One can only imagine what it must have been like for Bronze, still grieving Kevlaar 7's death, to be in the studio immersed in and arranging the sounds of his big brother's disembodied voice talking, laughing, and performing lyrical surgery over his beats. My favorite song on the album is undoubtedly "Three Weeks Before" for a number of reasons. The track is bookended by Kevlaar proudly announcing the names of the song's creators ("Salute da Kidd... Kevlaar 7... Bronze Nazareth") and laughing, full of life and pride, over a supremely soulful sample with its looping voice lamenting, "My aching heart." The beat kicks in, it is one of the best Bronze has ever made, and Kevlaar and Salute proceed to tear it to shreds like sharks feasting in bloody waters. Every once in a while I encounter a song I find to be so good that I can't possibly turn the volume up high enough, craving to hear every little grain of the beat and be enveloped by the vocals. "Three Weeks Before" (its title presumably signaling it was made three weeks before Kev's sudden departure from the earthly plane) is a song with soul and emotional weight. As Kevlaar's roaring chorus and verse attest, it's also a fire juggler's display of precise, powerfully rendered technique. "Patented fire, haywire blitz the chimney/ Dissect the atoms of all enemies splendidly."

The culmination of The Year of Bronze occurs in the final track, "Lord What Did I Do Wrong?", which matches "Three Weeks Before" for deepest moment on the album. A harp and piano beat produced by Kevlaar, with Salute rapping in an entirely different tone, looking back on life and concluding, "Mad sins committed/ Can't believe all the shit that I did/ Just pray to God it don't reflect on my kids." And for the final verse of the fourth album he's produced on the year, Bronze Nazareth gets the last word, pouring his heart out over his brother's music. The leader of a group of gifted artists who've fought through numerous hardships (among them, one member half-paralyzed, one deceased, one in jail), in the middle of America's most decrepit city, devoted to a dying art form, letting it all out through poetry. So much poignant imagery here. I'll close with the final piece of Bronze's lengthy verse:

"Architect build abandoned castles in the sky
In a race to get a mansion for my pops before he dies
Through any fashion, the plan is defined in time
I work the ghetto span, but rain shines red wine
and the storms never end, baby-nine double-m
Break the spine and intend that's why be all bent
Trying to invent living lavish to ascend
Or climb the closing walls, just envision Kev again
These devils wearing blue trying to take my soul within
Suppose I'm God's child, but this is Hell's home
Maybe prayers don't reach you from a point so low
Hold the hands of an angel when I tremble through these homes
'cuz the lions eyeing stacked bones higher than Silver Dome
Right now I'm half alive so tomorrow could be blown
Sending kites to God, my set of footprints alone
Trying to rise and he died, interrupted unfairly
Hard to breathe through the grief, seeing ashes, friends buried
I was here, just thinking bout these diamond canaries
I aborted two seeds, shipped them home on a ferry
Battled my shadow alone with massive flurries..."


2 comments:

  1. Kevlarr 7 produced "i couldn't get around it"

    ReplyDelete
  2. "Couldn't Get Around It" appears as a "hidden" track at the end of the outro. Kevlaar produced the beat in the Outro (a beat that appears again on The Illahstrator, actually), but Bronze did "Couldn't get around it".

    ReplyDelete

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