Sunday, January 13, 2019

Album Review: Ghost Files: Bronze Tape

Ghost Files: Bronze Tape (Remixes) - Ghostface Killah & Bronze Nazareth
(released Nov. 30, 2018).

It finally happened: in the year that marked Wu-Tang Clan's 25th anniversary, we were finally blessed with an album from one of the nine generals fully produced by their most talented Wu-Element, Detroit's "hip hop blues" wizard Bronze Nazareth. After a productive decade-and-a-half waiting in the wings of the W---producing or featuring on tracks with virtually the entire Clan* and producing albums for Wu Killa Beez like Dom Pachino (of Killarmy), 60 Second Assassin (Sunz of Man) and Timbo King (Royal Fam)---in 2018, Bronze Nazareth got to design the soundscape for an official Ghostface album. Tony Starks, whose penchant for soul sounds is right in Bronze's wheelhouse. Indeed Bronze, given a chance to take a Ghost album for a spin, roars out the gate in a hail of fire, jetting along curves like a Bugatti, carting a dump truck full of jukeboxes jangling soul sounds over a rocky road of chunky bass and snares. That's the sound of Ghost Files: Bronze Tape. Keeping with the motorcar metaphor, the journey is punctuated by a few brief stoplights featuring dramatic dialogues from dusty old films while soul jams loop quietly in the background. With such heavy presence by the producer deploying cinematic clips and heavily orchestrated bangers, manipulating beats to embellish bars, the overall audio experience conjures classic Wu in a fresh form.

The project began in October with The Lost Tapes, a new album from Ghostface stuffed with notable features and fully produced by talented beatmaker and imposturous internet author, Big Ghost Ltd. Eight weeks later, fans were gifted a special double-edition of remixes to that album, the Bronze Tape (prod. by Bronze) and the Propane Tape (prod. by Agallah). While the Agallah version and the original Big Ghost Ltd version are both solid, in what amounted to a three-sided producer battle to craft the best Ghostface album, the kid from Motown put on a clinic. In this review I want to focus on how the Bronze Tape embodies what sets Bronze apart as a producer and why this record offers promise to diehard Wu-Tang fans hungry for fresh production.

With the Bronze Tape, Bronze took what began as a patchy, guest-heavy Ghost solo and breathed new life into it, embellishing the rhymes more, lacing tracks with theme and emotion, creating a cohesive, cinematic audio experience. (On my initial listens of the Bronze Tape I kept thinking, man wait til Quentin Tarantino hears this, he's gonna want Bronze to score the next film.) I was amazed at how different some of the verses became in the Bronze edition, kept catching so many great lyrics I'd somehow missed on The Lost Tapes like Planet Asia's "You couldn't visualize it with a Dogon telescope" on "Majestic Accolades" or the entire KXNG Crooked verse on "Buckingham Palace" where the beat showcases Crooked's rapid flow magnificently. There are a number of verses whose flows find better accordance and enhanced potency thru the Bronze remixes, like Chris Rivers spazzing out on "Cold Crush" or L.A.D. (who sounds amazing over Bronze beats) owning my favorite track "Saigon Velour" next to a trio of decorated legends in Ghost, Snoop Dogg, and E-40.

What separates Bronze from the pack as a producer and what stands out to me on Ghost Files: Bronze Tape is that these are not just beats, these are compositions. No simple sample loops here, no crudely sewed sample chops where the seams stick out. These are narratives of sound and melody. The beats tell stories. The listener hears stories on both the macro and micro scale. Bronze turns the whole album into a story about a duo of outlaw killers, "Wiseman and my compadre Tony." Songs are also laced with clips elaborating their themes like Russell Brand decrying the vapidness of wealth and fame to open "Constant Struggle" or the dramatic discovery that someone "was killed by piranhas" preceding Raekwon's "Watch 'Em Holla" verse where he tosses someone into a pool of piranhas. Or look at "Buckingham Palace"--- to emphasize the killers theme it's not only bookended by news reports and interviews about proficient professional hitmen but even the voice in the beat sounds like it's singing "born to take a life." (Bronze excels at using voices as instruments, observable in many of the beats on this tape like "Buckingham Palace," "Press Rewind (Remix)," or the subtle and soulful interlude "Put the Ghostface On It.")

At an intricate level, these instrumentals carry their own narratives. Bronze tosses in so much instrumentation in his beats, garnishing the gumbo with variety and flavor. There's been a trend toward minimalism in a lot of rap beats lately. While we've heard many styles from Bronze over the years, his signature sound is the farthest thing from minimalism. Layers and layers of melodies and choral croons and elaborate drums and bass lines weave thru a typical Bronze banger. Listen to "Constant Struggle" for instance---the beat has a crooning chorus underneath which there's a little melody of what sound like xylophone chimes plus a subtle little vocal lilt, the bridge brings in a saxophone, and the crisp percussion is even accompanied by what sounds like a cowbell. My favorite beat on the album is "Saigon Velour"---a beautiful composition of piano keys, voiced moans, and horn sections. For that beat, and "Watch 'Em Holla" too, it's in the ending coda of the song, where its chopped and re-played chords are plainly revealed, that it sinks in how interesting and varied the composition is and how well it was played next to the drums. You realize Bronze Nazareth is a producer's producer.

It is obvious that Bronze has now perfected the sound we heard on the explosive Wu-Tang Meets the Indie Culture album and on tracks like "Handle the Heights" or "Records We Used to Play," a kind of lofty sonic gallop. A sound that conjures leaping and flying across a vast landscape like Hulk. I think this is part of what Bronze gets at in his verse on "Press Rewind (Remix)" when he says "The land that he work span a Grand Canyon turf." The word soundscape has often been used to describe Bronze's production and it fits---collectively these beats are like vast landscape vistas that reveal intricately rugged contours and wavy terrain when looked at closely. I think Bronze is trying to attune the listener's ear to these type of details. The brolic and soulful sound of the "Press Rewind" remix, a certifiable Bronze banger, exemplifies exactly what I'm talking about. Same with "Buckingham Palace." Same with "Majestic Accolades" where a chunky ass bass, kicks and snares and ascendant orchestral violins occasionally give way to a hypnotizing harp solo meant to highlight the lyrics. (And where again I picked up something I hadn't noticed on the original album: the dope call out to GZA's "Breaker, Breaker" to open Ghost's verse.)

What's immediately apparent in Bronze's beats is the powerful raw emotions. It's rugged hardcore hip hop, yet it aims for the heart. That said, Bronze is also a technician. He plays with pace and tempo a lot, a good example being "Watch 'Em Holla"---that's actually the third version of the same track (first came "Piranhas" with Forever MC then the Big Ghost remix) and whereas the first two are rapid tempo beats, Bronze somehow stretches out the timing, delivering a beat with a more drawn-out cadence that gives the vocals more room to breathe. I loved the first two versions of this track and somehow Bronze made it something different and original, full of variety and custom elements that make it sound like he played the beat live, embellishing the bars in each verse. The drums that tumble out of the sky leading into Ghost's verse, the stutters and stops as Masta Killa drills in, these are the minor details that lead to a rich, addictive listening experience.

This is also part of the paradox of the remix album---the producer has the advantage of hindsight when given the already-recorded vocals to play with. He can customize it, stitch it together into a cohesive whole. We don't know what the album would've sounded like had Bronze been tapped from the start, maybe it would've been even better with Ghost tailoring his lyrical approach to the essence of Bronze's beats. One thing missing from Ghost on the album is his patented story track and yet, as producer, Bronze manages to build in stories and overarching meaning on the Bronze Tape. The rich production makes it the best sounding Ghostface album since Supreme Clientele. More than a dozen albums deep into his career, Ghostface suggests on one of the interludes that he'll soon retire from making "street albums" and transition into making "albums that mean something." As the wails and pipe organs of Bronze's subtle soul sample are heard intoning behind his words it becomes undeniably evident who Ghost should work with to make "albums that mean something."

This album dropped the same year U-God published his tell-all book, Raw: My Journey Into Wu-Tang. One of the things that really struck me from that book was his brutally honest and detailed assessment of the Clan's musical decline in their last few albums---it's the same thing Wu heads have all come to acknowledge---that RZA's production has increasingly fallen out of touch with its grimy hip hop origins. With this album, if nothing else, Bronze showed that the remix album is a ripe medium for him to work in. His skills with deploying dusty film clips and orchestral bangers are perfectly suited for it. I'd love to hear a Bronze remix of the last couple Wu-Tang albums. As a larger point though, Ghost Files: Bronze Tape proves that it's long past time for Bronze to take over the WTC production mantle.

*Before this album Bronze had worked with the whole Clan except Ghost and Mef. As for Osiris aka Baby Jesus aka Russell "Dirt Dog" Jones, the heartrending "ODB Tribute" on the Wu Meets Indie Culture album from 2005 right after he passed on, that was a Bronze track. 

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