Imagine yourself in the midst of an entire orchestra of fog horns.
That’s kind of what the beginning of Travis Laplante’s Blade of Love sounds like. It is, in a word, jarring.
The opening of the 40-minute opus stridently jolts you out of your everyday surroundings and promptly thrusts you into a kaleidoscopic realm of bold colors and even bolder sounds—an entire world of tangled noises you didn’t even know existed.
Blade of Love is the sophomore album of Battle Trance, a tenor saxophone quartet led by the aforementioned Travis Laplante. Along with his coconspirators Patrick Breiner, Matt Nelson, and Jeremy Viner, Laplante explores the saxophone as a vessel for the human spirit—in all its beautiful and discordant complexity.
This complexity is expressed, in part, through a colorful palette of extended techniques both virtuosic and primal: the piece features multiphonics, overblowing, nontraditional mouth articulations, singing, grunting, growling, scowling, and a whole slew of other sounds we don’t even have names for yet.
“There were certain specific sounds that I imagined being in Blade of Love, but I couldn’t get close enough to them using traditional saxophone tone,” Laplante said. “Sounds like arrows flying through the air, birds singing or flying overhead, bombs, water running, the wind, fires, singing in church, making love, killing, waves crashing, fighting for your life, thunder, the sound of rage, howling, crying, laughing, the sound of my last breath. So I began working on different ways for the saxophone to get closer to these sounds, and the resulting techniques became part of the fabric of Blade of Love.”
Suffice it to say, the fabric of Blade of Love is not so clear-cut. In fact, the album is more of a quilt than a piece of fabric, really. It’s the kind of quilt that is worn and well-loved—wrinkled, ripped, speckled, shared, tattered, torn, and sewn back together with tender, loving care. The three distinctive movements bleed in and out of one another, each one borrowing small patches here and there from the moods, motives, and melodic landscape of the others.
The initial foghorns of the first movement evaporate into airy, overlapping waves of sound before gradually transforming into a soulful sax groove atop circling minimalist melodies. Yet just as the musical texture begins to slow down and thin out, a drawn-out crescendo yanks you back into an anxious soundscape of fluttering melodies, overlapping and interacting like four frantically beating lifelines intertwined.
A series of (by comparison) barely audible whistling blends softly into the second movement, eventually giving way to another dramatic sonic contrast: this time, a variation of the earlier sax solo layered over a medley of visceral squeaking, squawking, pitch slides, and what I can only describe as saxophonic neighing. Breathy stretches of silence punctuate the warped, wavering harmonies, and the movement comes to a close with a warbling chant of foggy multiphonics and primordial sputtering.
A cross between a solemn hymn and a whale song quartet begins the shorter final movement, with sighing sax melodies overlapping and evaporating into damp waves of tranquility. But of course, Blade of Love does not end so mildly: the sax quartet flickers anxiously back into another variation of the original sax solo and the piece gradually comes to a close with the sound of breathless, fluttering saxophone keys.
And by the end of the album, that breathless flutter starts to sound pretty familiar. It sounds like wings flapping, mouths breathing, hearts beating, and life living. Because sometimes, life does sound like fluttering keys—or spiritual hymns or whale songs. Sometimes life really does sound like an orchestra of fog horns—and that, too, can be beautiful.