Concert Review: Battle Trance

Concert Review: Battle Trance

It was hallucinatory music. It was transcendent.

“There are parts of reality that we can’t perceive. I think music taps into that.”

The members of Battle Trance were hunkered down around the merch table, signing CDs, talking to fans, ordering burgers. There were sweat drops and messed-up hair, sure, but it was hard to tell in the post-show calm that they had just delivered a devastating set of music. But maybe that was the point. Bandleader Travis Laplante had been musing on how music could reveal things beyond our senses and, in the aftermath of a brilliant concert, reality had shifted back to normal. But during the time the quartet was on stage, they and the audience ascended.

Battle Trance’s saxophone madness can be compared to fellow visionaries Colin Stetson and Matana Roberts, but nothing really compares to four tenor sax players blaring in perfect disharmony with each other. Their 2014 record Palace of Wind is still a landmark in modern avant-garde music and last year’s Blade of Love may have been 2016’s most disturbing listen. I thought I was prepared. I was incorrect.

Part of that was local openers Blue Cranes. They played an eclectic mix of jazz, funk and krautrock with tin whistles, drum solos and warped bass lines. But even though a few of their songs shrugged at the idea of time signatures, it was still music to dance to. Drummer Ji Tanzer was smiling mischievously before Battle Trance came on. He seemed pretty sure that no one had any idea what they were in for.

Battle Trance tackled Blade of Love in full, saying nothing as they entered, taking two full minutes to breathe silently together and then roaring into the cacophony. The sheer force asserted by Battle Trance was nothing short of astounding. Thanks to pop music treating the saxophone as a “Careless Whisper,” it’s easy to forget how much physical power it packs. And with four world-class talents on display, that brutality was multiplied. Laplante’s secondary band is the ferocious rock-jazz-experimental group Little Women, famed for the violence in their music. But even without drums, guitars or any other traditionally eardrum-shattering instruments, Battle Trace went on a warpath.

The noises made seemed impossible. The opening minute sounded like distant foghorns blaring out. The saxophones later recalled the human voice, bass guitars, clanking machinery and hurricane-force winds all within 40 minutes. There wasn’t any room to dance, there was barely room to move. I found myself occasionally having to remind my lungs to work during some of the more intense sections. The group, usually lead by Laplante, would take up rippling motifs that cascaded over each other, finding hidden melodies between the repeated phrases as they moved in and out of sync with each other. This impressive skill was only topped by how the group was able to stop and start these portions without a moment’s notice. The cascading notes would stop and be replaced by booming, ear-tearing blasts without warning.

A Battle Trance show, if I haven’t made it entirely clear, isn’t for everyone. I felt physically ill during a few moments and, call me a masochist, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. But the quartet still managed to have segments of romantic beauty. Not exactly radio-friendly lines, but deeply soulful motifs that would burst from the cloudier sections like rays of sunshine. This increased the gorgeousness of those sterling phrases, but also cast darker shadows on the show’s more vicious moments. Occasionally the group would contort themselves, going into sputtering fits, only releasing grunts and groans as they blew over their saxes, forcing out waves of spittle. It’s the only show I’ve known that needed a splash guard.

And it ended as it began. After one final rally of impossibly violent noise, the group descended into silence. They pantomimed the motions they used to make that destructive sound, then relaxed, dropped their weapons to the side and bowed. I had lost all track of time. The onslaught had driven all other thoughts from my mind. There were minutes where I was sure they weren’t making noises possible on this planet. They whistled through their instruments and combined high, wavering notes into something disturbing and hypnotic. It was hallucinatory music. It was transcendent.

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