Grouper haunts softly, Battle Trance shatters
Grouper, get out of my mind. After being wowed by Grouper’s completely entrancing 2011 double-album A I A, this writer thought that the 2012 follow-up, Violet Replacement, was a retread of her sonic territory. Last year’s The Man Who Died in His Boat featured outtakes from the sessions for 2008’s Dragging a Dead Deer up a Hill, with a similar acoustic-guitar-centric fuzzy atmosphere; while still excellent, it was no great departure. Grouper’s new album, Ruins, offers a transformation, which is what this writer has been anticipating.
Liz Harris—the woman behind Grouper—created most of Ruins while on a residency in Portugal in 2011, using only a 4-track recorder, a piano and a microphone. While theoretically it’s a stark contrast to her other work that is more dependent on effects processing and a soothing ambient noise aesthetic, in execution, the album is still as shadowy and blurred as Grouper has always been. Harris obscures her words (which are about “political anger and emotional garbage”) under a thin veil by singing softly and barely enunciating.
It’s almost astounding how much she gets using so little, seemingly effortlessly offering beautifully haunted songs with rudimentary piano skills and a sweetly grayscale voice, carefully modulating. The final track, “Made of Air,” is the sole diversion, being an 11-minute track recorded a decade ago, with Harris’ more familiar thick ambient haze method.
This doleful sensitivity, in less capable and nuanced hands, would probably sound contrived and possibly insufferable, but Harris strikes the perfect balance, being affecting without being either overwrought or too distant. Ruins is perhaps the result of both judicious selection and serendipity, allowing background noises—from nature sounds like frogs and rain to the errant beep of a microwave oven (concluding “Labyrinth”)—to add to the experience.
In a sense, it’s an enhanced field recording, driven by Harris’ walks in Portugal through both physical and mental ruins, resulting in a stunning album and welcome development in Grouper’s catalog.
Palace of Wind
There is no shortage of saxophone ensembles, with the quartet configuration heard with notable, versatile groups like the World Saxophone Quartet or The Tiptons, or with larger, atypical ventures such as Caroline Kraabel’s 20-piece, all-female immersive sax orchestra Mass Producers.
Battle Trance, led by the freakishly talented Travis Laplante, is a new group that pushes the capabilities and expectations of what a sax quartet can do, with extremely technically demanding compositions and the desire to make an overwhelming listening experience.
Laplante formed Battle Trance after waking one morning with a very specific idea for a new group in his mind, comprised solely of tenor saxophonists, and he even had names picked out: Matthew Nelson, Jeremy Viner and Patrick Breiner. Listening to Battle Trance’s debut album, Palace of Wind, it becomes apparent that just any saxophonists could not have pulled this off, as its execution requires difficult techniques such as circular breathing in order to sustain notes for an indefinite length of time.
Over three long tracks, the listener is gently, then forcefully pushed into understanding the potential of the ensemble, and the album gets more and more compelling as it unfurls. The first part provides a little breathing room before a manic flutter of notes, several minutes in, eventually giving way to sustained tones.
The second part begins with melodic chords unfolding, one note at a time, before expressing a full, ardent and rich sound quickly shattered by intense two-note patterns and dissonance; after fast cascades, the track ends abruptly. Part three is even more fierce, starting with discordant multi-phonics and ghostly notes; the percussive flaps of the sax keys opening and closing are prominent, mirroring the violent squawking of some crazed aural bird before swarms of sonic bees plague the proceedings.
This writer enjoys using animal-related metaphors, but when it comes to the engaging, awe-inspiring, genre-destroying intensity of Battle Trance, it’s a whole new type of beast—maybe like a shape-shifting four-headed chimera that is shooting bees out of its mouths.