I have a confession to make before we get started: It took me literal weeks of looking at the name Brass Menažeri before realizing that it was a play on Glass Menagerie. Of this, I am deeply ashamed.
I also cringed at the notion of an underground hip-hop/traditional Balkan brass band fusion when I first heard it. Of this, I am even more deeply ashamed, because Mr. Lif and the members of Brass Menažeri make an exceptional team on collaboration Resilient. More than a world fusion album, the record is a shockingly solid exchange between two very different musical entities – but when does cross-genre pollination cross the line into gimmick?
The album gets off to a shaky start with Rebirth, where neither Mr. Lif nor the Menažeri give much leeway to the other. That their rhythms match almost seems like a fortunate accident; there is little in the two groups’ disparate lines that suggests they were conceived to go together. When we get to “Crypt of Lost Styles”, though, a thin line of percussion takes the lead, gluing the artists together in a way that starts to make more sense. The third track’s the charm, though, and “Aftermath” sees the brass band playing longer notes to back Lif’s flow. Samples of Eastern European choral vocables elevate the tune, and the overall cohesion makes this an early album highlight – and the first sure sign that this project is serious.
Going steady at the base of the track seems to be the best bet for Brass Menažeri, and “The Wanderer” sees the pairing continue in largely this way, with the band playing a few more intricate flourishes than usual for guest producer DJ Mr. Sonny James to loop. Mr. Lif continues to rap at a smooth midtempo over his new backing band; minimal drum beats again pulling every element of the composition together.
After a few tracks of hanging in the background, Brass Menažeri goes solo on “Burning Up” and “Doppio Macchiato”, a swaying ballad and a whirlwind, respectively. It’s a good chance for the group to demonstrate its versatility and leads into the quicker hip-hop sound of “Hump Day”. The brass stays at a minimum here, while Lif hits peak verbal density – a chance for him to show off his versatility, as well.
Three more tracks make for an easy ride. “What About Us?” is another DJ Mr. Sonny James cut with significantly more Lif than Menažeri; “Guiding Light” sees both groups at their individual and collective bests; “Breathe Deep” gives the brass band a final solo song, this one a slower march.
It tends to be hard to sell someone on Balkan brass music: you either love it or you want nothing to do with it. It’s even harder to wind up with a successful fusion; the center of the Venn diagram between Eastern European big band music and almost anything else is usually a small one. Resilient has its weaker moments, to be sure, but it’s worth taking a risk on for fans of the cooler side of brass, the more off-kilter side of underground hip-hop, or bands with terrible puns in their names.