Battle Trance Blade of Love

[NNA; 2016]

Styles: jazz, chamber, avant-garde,
Others: Colin Stetson, Mats Gustafson, John Zorn,

To me, the blade in Blade of Love comes to fruition about halfway through the album, seven minutes into its second movement: clenched jaws spit out tight upper partials then morph them into shimmering and dense multi-phonics that develop into a tense, steady cacophony. The four saxophonists (Travis Laplante, Matthew Nelson, Jeremy Viner, and Patrick Breiner) fill out their tones, allowing lower harmonics through while upper partials rub and split apart, slicing the inner ear.

Acoustically, the saxophone has a special access to acts of aural punishment. The instrument’s generally bright tambour, capability for loudness, and harmonic richness encourage the guttural overblowing and scream-induced multi-phonics that have been long canonized by pioneers like Pharoah Sanders and Peter Brötzmann, and stylized by contemporaries Mats Gustafson and Colin Stetson. This capacity of the instrument is not lost on Battle Trance. And while Blade of Love’s sole precursor Palace of Wind scoured and procedurally stretched acoustic facets of the sax for a minimalistic, ebbing and flowing 40 minutes, Blade of Love presupposes that research and shows more blatant aspirations for a music much more, ummm, let’s say, spiritual. Taking vamped riffs and progressions as moments for soloistic expression, Blade of Love shows Battle Trance with a greater directive toward development and conveyance than the experimentation of their previous take. Blade of Love seeks to make a real sort of narrative journey.

Unfortunately, many such moments of catharsis and release on Blade of Love felt a little too manufactured, performative, and predetermined to have much emotional effect for me. Maybe it’s my calloused heart, but the arpeggiated climax that arises out of the fragilely hummed chorale four minutes into the album feels a little stiffly cinematic. When the harmony eventually shifts under its soloist, I’m not so inclined to follow the triumphant feeling of escape I am sensing Laplante and company hoped to convey. Moments like this are especially disappointing for me, because surrounding events are quite nicely executed and compositionally effective.

In such effective events, direct emotional conveyance is not of particular importance: empathetic listeners can find their own emotional relationships to the music much more significantly in spaces where it is not served to them quite so bluntly. The album’s first three minutes, for example, form a nicely open passage of thick, foggy harmony; emotional signifiers are present within its chords, but the non-idiomatic, droning character of their movement allows a listener greater liberty with emotional interpretation. I’m also fond of the steady harmonic decomposition into dissonance that follows the first movement’s solo. Rather than conjuring idiomatic tropes, the slow introduction of disjunct pitches creates a compositional logic that is self-satisfying. Equally satisfying is the sheer force of the bari’s stabs that end the movement, unleashing an intense occasion in which tambour, force, and physicality are bound in a moment of dry directness following a bout of complexity. And although this particular moment of catharsis is abetted by a sense of its soloist’s presence and exertion, transcendence isn’t always bolstered by the saxophone’s tendency to conjure its image through sound.

Throughout the album, the four saxophonists are heard in what sounds like a small semi-reverberant room. The recording has the quality of documentation rather than the medium-specific designation of a fully considered studio album. I find it increasingly hard to allow emotional facets of the music to transcend the acoustically portrayed setting of the ensemble’s production of the piece within their space. My journey does not feel as transportive as theirs must have been during creation. I feel that this is a hurdle to address with any music that emphasizes the importance of instrumental/instrumentalist identity and exploration of such over questions of effectivity for the listener.

At its best, Blade of Love is nicely adventurous and somewhat relentless. However, where Palace of Wind left listeners with an active role of relation and interpretation, Battle Trance comes off as a little overbearing this time around.

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