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.
Now firmly established as one of the greatest rap lyricists to ever grace a mic,* Canibus has little left to prove. He's been in cyphers with Big Pun, immortalized the day of Biggie's death with one unforgettable rhyme, collided loudly with pop heavyweights LL Cool J and Eminem, apocryphally battled the whole Wu-Tang Clan into submission (until they were saved by future Canibus collaborator and destroyer of worlds, Killah Priest), built a kinship with Mike Tyson, and released over a dozen records to varying degrees of critical acclaim. For this newest offering, Bis teamed up with one of hip hop's premier producers, Bronze Nazareth, to bring about what might be his most well-rounded LP to date.
*It's worth mentioning that throughout the listening session, rapper Tash from Tha Alkaholiks sat in the backseat of the truck vociferously praising Canibus' emceeing while drunkenly vacillating between hilarity and cantankerousness.
The knock on Canibus has always tended to be that his albums are mostly weak on production, despite their unmatched depth and complexity of lyricism. Linking up with Bronze was bound to create excellence as the Detroit beat maestro has steadily churned out superior fully-produced albums for years now. The Bronze production on Time Flys, Life Dies... Phoenix Rise is as crisp and prominent as anything he's ever done. The reliably fantastic and richly intricate verses of Canibus blend well with a style of production that heightens and maintains the listener's attention throughout each song.
A perfect example of this is on one of the opening tracks, an 8-minute odyssey detailing Canibus' "Audiobiography" with four verses over a beat that's heavy on boom-bap kicks, snares, and piercing hi hats with a smoothly moving bassline that carries the lengthy track along. One of the most memorable performances on the album, it's Canibus reflecting on the experiences of his illustrious career, beginning with a humorously detailed story about attending billionaire Paul Allen's birthday party in Alaska. Bookending the track are intriguing old radio interview snippets, opening with Jay-Z praising Canibus' integrity, then ending with Howard Stern interviewing the Jamaican rapper about his friendship with Mike Tyson.
The rest of the record's first half is replete with marquee features with the likes of Raekwon, Killah Priest, Kurupt, Craig G and Pete Rock making appearances. Pete Rock reminds us how marvelous his baritone voice sounds, rapping over a string-heavy Bronze beat on "Concourse P" while the notorious feud between battle rapper Dizaster and Canibus is put to rest on "Battle Buddies (4 Lyfe)" which features the two going at it over a harsh, twisted piano beat that sounds like a carnival horror movie nightmare. That last one stands with "Bronze Horses" as the most rugged beats on the album, the type of production that confirms Bronze Nazareth has achieved his own chamber of hardcore hip hop.
The album's finest stretch comes in its second half, though, with Canibus mostly going solo and Bronze crafting an immersive soundscape. My favorite part of the album is the sequence beginning with "Matte Black Rapana" (in which Bronze steps to the mic to provide a bewildering cascade of wordplay, promising "Visible monuments inside the sound, acknowledge it") and going through to the cleverly titled "Seismoluminesence". Within that stretch "Mr. Montana" hits with its thick bassline, emotive horns, and crooning voice over which Canibus laments the decline of hip hop which "no longer educates the listener/ rap music just pacifies the prisoners." This vibe continues into "Give Me Not Control", a zoned-out head-nodder with a rising and falling string loop and hard drums. Then comes the haunted pianola production on "Igloo Muzik" before the spooky vocals weaved throughout "Seismoluminesence".
The closing track is as laid back a Canibus song as you'll ever hear, with Bronze (or his late brother Kevlaar 7?) providing a gently rolling vocal sample loop that sacrifices nothing in percussion despite its contemplative vibe, while Canibus describes scenes of reflection: "Up before sun rise/ open my eyes/ take a walk with my spirit guide/ go outside." It's a perfect track for long drives on the highway. As this soothing, introspective track played that evening in downtown Austin, the sun began to set spreading violet pastels across the sky and a cool breeze streamed in off the river. Soon my immersive audio experience, a perfect musical complement to the Oculus Rift episode, was over and I was back out on the busy festive streets of Austin looking for something to eat.
A million thanks and utmost respect are due to my pal M-Eighty for the privilege of an exclusive listening session and for walking me in right past the line of people waiting for the Oculus Rift experience.