Battle Trance Blade of Love, Hailu Mergia & Dahlak Wede Harer Guzo
Blade of Love
(New Amsterdam/NNA Tapes)
Any In this day and age, when a mind-boggingly immense amount of music can be heard for free, in an instant, on Spotify, YouTube and other sources, it’s certainly a valid thought to question the role of a music critic—where’s the need to read a text explanation when a person can simply listen to a song right then and make her own critical decisions?
This thought came to mind when listening to the intensely emotional instrumental album Blade of Love by the tenor saxophone quartet Battle Trance, led by Travis Laplante, the composer of the album’s three movements; this is music that must be felt, and over explaining wouldn’t do justice to its ineffable power.
A critic can be a guide, providing context and perspective, but in this case, it might be more appropriate to offer some kind of Lester Bangs/Molly Bloom-inspired cathartic reverie, which this writer wouldn’t dare attempt. Some kind of existential self-questioning meltdown would be pretty awkward, so let’s just try our best here.
Written as a physical and spiritual intersection, Laplante explained that he had to tap into non-traditional saxophone tones in order to generate the desired sounds— “sounds like arrows flying through the air, birds singing or flying overhead, bombs, water running” and so on. It’s uncanny just how well Laplante and his talented cohorts—Patrick Breiner, Matt Nelson and Jeremy Viner—are able to articulate their mimickry; in fact, when listening to the album before reading Laplante’s explanation, this writer envisioned many of the things listed, like birds, bombs and rushing water.
A human aspect is present at times on Blade of Love through the use of melancholic humming/singing and intense blowing without vibrating a reed, making the instrument an extension of the player’s lungs. Moments of warm tenderness lead to chaotic rushes and violent bleating, directed like machine gun fire. This writer’s favorite piece is the second part, which offers the album’s most overwhelming emotional moment, with piercing divebombing notes, followed by slowly descending pitches not perfectly in unison, resembling violin glissandos.
Blade of Love can make the listener think about the possibilities of stimulating an emotional response from a sound—it’s not always a melody or an imitation of an existing sound. It’s often about taking a musical instrument to its limits, wringing out every last drop of its spirit, and nobody else in the world is making music quite like it.
Hailu Mergia & Dahlak Band
Wede Harer Guzo
(Awesome Tapes from Africa)
One of this writer’s favorite moments from the 2014 Big Ears Festival in Knoxville was a mesmerizing late-night set of Ethiopian funk from keyboardist Hailu Mergia—who took a 30-year hiatus before returning to live performances—with the Brooklyn backing band Low Mentality.
When browsing others’ recollections of the show to help piece together his own, he came across an article for Vice by Grayson Currin—who is admired by this writer—that faulted the set; he had wanted something more driving and dance-inducing, rather than something like “a complacent Sunday afternoon score.” This writer does not share his disappointment, respectfully, but really, it all comes down to expectations.
With this line of thinking, Currin might not share this writer’s admiration for the new reissue of Mergia’s 1978 cassette-only, hour-long album Wede Harer Guzo, featuring takes on Ethiopian standards along with two Mergia originals. It has a gentle funk undercurrent without in-your-face, ocean-deep grooves that some might favor. Horns aren’t present to blare and blast but to slither in and deviously infect, like on the track “Sintayehu.”
There’s a simple explanation for this lightness, compared with some other work from Mergia, like the outstanding album Tche Belew recorded with the Walias Band, the house band for the Hilton hotel in Addis Ababa. Seeking a different kind of sound, Mergia recorded Wede Harer Guzo with the Dahlak Band, the house band for a different hotel (the Ghion) in town, which had a sound that leaned on soul and Amharic sources.
This is not soul-funk to make your pulse race, but instead, it serves as comforting divertimentos. Actually, it reminds this writer of the definition of ambient music offered by Brian Eno, who said that it must “be ignorable as it is interesting.”
Wede Harer Guzo doesn’t scream for attention, but details are present for those who seek them, like the spirited, flowing guitar lines on the album’s closing track and particularly in the compelling organ melodies from Mergia, with his characteristically reedy timbre and calm, purposeful wandering.