Friday, September 23, 2016

Exfoliant: Battle Trance's 'Blade of Love' live

I sat there last night, in a pew at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Chelsea, listening to Battle Trance, and I kept wishing more of my friends were there. It was one of those everybody-should-hear-this moments, which I find are pretty rare, even when I'm seeing music that I'm enjoying immensely. Often, there's this dual sense of both loving a show and realizing that some element of – extreme volume, say, or prolonged abstraction — might serve as superficial turn-off to some listeners.

There's something about Battle Trance, though, that feels universal, or, if no music or can truly be that, it at least feels unusually broad in its ability to hit a listener somewhere primal, accessing a part of the sound-and-spirit-receiving mechanism that would seem to be fundamental but that doesn't get engaged with all that often. The group — a four-tenor-saxophone ensemble led by Travis Laplante — dispenses with all obvious trappings of musical style, while at the same time evoking in mood and sensation the essences of many styles (gospel and noise are two I'd throw out as examples) in a way that feels intensely right and natural to me. As though the musical and experiential event that is a Battle Trance performance was waiting there all along for someone to get into the right headspace to enact it.

It doesn't surprise me that that someone is Travis Laplante, who is, incidentally, a friend of mine. Ever since Travis first came on my musical and social radar about a decade ago, as one fourth of the raw, revelatory Little Women, there's been a sense that he's been operating an unusually high-stakes enterprise, fueled by a sturdy, built-for-the-long-haul union of strict discipline and soulful poetry. I'm lucky to know a few people like this, artists whose practice not only invites but demands the As Serious as Your Life tag bestowed by the great Val Wilmer on the jazz radicals she set out to document.

But if the mood of Little Women felt sinister, even downright infernal, Battle Trance seems to concern itself with the other side of the coin. Seeing them in a church last night almost felt redundant, because they render sacred any space they perform in. Battle Trance makes records, great ones — last night's show was a release party for the new Blade of Love, which the group played in full, according to their well-established M.O. — but it says more about my life right now than it does about the contents of Blade (or of any other recording, for that matter) that I've had trouble finding the time and space to really get there with it, and by get there, I mean, I guess, really surrender to it.

I wrote above of Travis Laplante's high stakes, and I part of what I meant is that he's an artist who always seems to be going after the transportive experience, both for himself and for the listener. He also works in the healing arts, and the parallels between these two areas of his work are so obvious that maybe there's no distinction between them. (See Brad Cohan's excellent Observer feature on the group for more on this.) The message I get from Battle Trance, from the way the group begins and ends its concerts with sort of silent, eyes-closed meditation, is one of surrender. (See Travis's announcement re: Blade of Love on his website, which begins: "It is with joy and intense vulnerability …") Again, the experience is like entering a church: Don't just silence your cell phone — a phrase that has become ever more profound as the years go by and the task of truly shutting down one's "information addiction"/"distraction sickness", even for a moment, has become more and more of a challenge — silence the part of yourself that wants either your body or your senses, or both, to be anywhere else but exactly where you are.

Being fully acoustic and literally made from breath, Battle Trance's music feels therapeutic in the sense of a deep engagement with nature. The saxophone, the vehicle of the band's sound-and-spirit-making, seems both essential and incidental. Essential because on a basic level, the group's work is an inquiry into that instrument's vast sonic potential; incidental because Battle Trance seems to tap into an experience, a ritual that seems somehow ancient, or at least way older than the roughly 170 years the saxophone has been around.

When I say Battle Trance feels therapeutic, I mean that I consider their shows to be healing experiences, but that's not the same as saying these performances feel in some way mild. Blade of Love begins with sustained overlapping tones, staggered so that one player ceasing breath just as another player is beginning, almost like a four-person simulation of the sound of the bagpipes. Air bounces around inside metal to create this mighty sort of sonic friction. The strength of the sound is startling, abrasive — like cold water splashed on the listener's face.

Then a choral effect, notes sung softly into the horn, leading into one of the group's sonic trademarks, a lilting melody played in a kind of round, with three of the players — in this case Jeremy Viner, Matt Nelson and Patrick Breiner — setting up a musical foundation for the fourth, in this case Laplante, to testify over. This particular episode, which comes about 5:30 into the first track on the album, felt particularly righteous in the live setting last night, as though I were watching a great gospel singer belt over three expert backing singers. This section sets the stage for one of the piece's climactic moments: a series of unison staccato blasts from all four players — harking back to Little Women's relentless, stabbing noise-jazz attack — that ends the piece's first movement.

One effect of the group's openhearted, unabashedly spiritual bent is that these sounds, these textures, all points on the spectrum of so-called extremity and mildness, seem to become one. The violent passages soothe; the tender passages sear. The weight of breath, whether expressed as whistling, hissing, murmuring or shouting, becomes a steady, constant fact or truth, as the music gradually attains lift-off, escapes the mundane, and that quality of ancient-ness takes over. These bold, thematic episodes that emerge — another gradually comes into focus around 2:00 into Blade of Love's second movement — these fundamental arrangements of sturdy repeated background figure and emotive, yearning, writhing foreground melody, the feeling dripping from the music like sweat, bring to mind all kinds of anachronistic but somehow wholly logical scenarios, like Otis Redding singing his heart out at Stonehenge.

Blade of Love's third movement begins in blatantly choral fashion, the saxophones used to transmit rather than amplify breath. Building to a place of heightened energy, again that mighty friction, where I imagine the sound, the breath inside each horn as a physical mass, ricocheting ever faster against the walls, creating a prismatic blur, a shimmer of sonic activity, a steely whine and whir, a visual and tactile event as much as a sonic one, made out of metal and breath. A ritual incantation, the kind that in the live setting makes the players seem like mere vessels for a practice much older than themselves.

Great live music is escape, not just being removed from an environment, a state of mind, a set of concerns, but being ushered somewhere else, a heightened place where you can live for a while. Battle Trance seems to me like a band entirely devoted to achieving this effect, within itself, first, and then within its listeners. In his review of Blade of Love in the September edition of the The New York City Jazz Record, Phil Freeman refers to the sensation of "emerging as after a full-immersion baptism." I'd plus-one that thought, and tack on the notion of leaving a Battle Trance show feeling exfoliated, scrubbed clean — raw but renewed. Of having undergone some kind of overhaul you didn't even realize you desperately needed. The group's music sounds incredible, sure. But what struck me again last night, seeing the band for the first time in two years, is that it feels even better.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Brooklyn personified: On the genius of Type O Negative's Peter Steele

I've never been a huge musical tourist, but certain artists bring out the pilgrim in me. A few years back, I visited Sonny Sharrock's grave (and the street named after him) in Ossining, NY, and yesterday, I made the much shorter stroll from my apartment in Brooklyn to a tree planted in honor of Peter Steele— late bassist, singer and songwriter for Type O Negative and Carnivore — at the northern tip of Prospect Park. (If you enter the park from the southwest corner of Grand Army Plaza, where the farmer's market is held on weekends, and walk through the underpass, you'll come out very close to the tree, as well as a plaque honoring Steele; there's a helpful map here.)

 Some pics:

Type O Negative's Bloody Kisses made a huge impression on me back in '93, and though my interest wavered a bit in the interim, I've always retained a certain fascination with Steele and his work. Embarking on a new phase of Steele-ology lately, via the complete Type O, Carnivore and even Fallout catalogs, and Soul on Fire, a highly readable, informative and insightful 2014 Steele biography by Mean Deviation author Jeff Wagner, I've been struck again by what a rich body of work this is.

A full traversal of the Type O Negative discography is a mindfuck: sometimes harrowing, often revelatory and never boring. The band (fittingly named Repulsion at the outset) started out as a kind of id dump for Steele, a spillage of his darkest, most uncensored thoughts concerning, as he put it in a Carnivore song title, "Sex and Violence." Slow, Deep and Hard, the band's 1991 debut, is, frankly, tough to sit through, and not just because it's an album determined to convey a depressive mindset via music that often mimics the LP's title with extreme faithfulness. The album is basically a protracted revenge fantasy, a sort of musical burning-in-effigy of a cheating lover that describes in excruciating detail the narrator's plans to "Kill You Tonight" (along with the man she's cheating with). As a teenager, I found the record, with its deadpan track titles ("Unsuccessfully Coping With the Natural Beauty of Infidelity"; "The Misinterpretation of Silence and Its Disastrous Consequences," the latter denoting a one-minute track composed of exactly zero sonic information) and perverse sing-alongs ("I know you're fucking someone else") hilarious. Listening back recently, it made my stomach turn. (I was shocked to learn, via the Wagner book, that Steele was in fact happily married during the making of this record.)

And I fully understand that this was music intended to evoke disgust, to "go there" in the most harrowing way possible. As made abundantly clear in the work of Carnivore — whose lyrics explored man's most primal (blood)lusts — and, well, yeah, that original cover of Slow, Deep and Hard's hysterical fake-live counterpart The Origin of the Feces (NSFW x 1,000) — Peter Steele was an artist obsessed with the dark side of human nature, the futility of love, the frailty of will, the way that, again to paraphrase a Type O album title, life keeps killing us, over and over.

But the remarkable thing about Peter Steele is the way he managed to sublimate the rage and vulgarity of his early work, growing into, against all odds, one of the most poignant, funny, vulnerable, heartbreakingly human songwriters of his generation. That arch-goth masterpiece Bloody Kisses was a major stylistic breakthrough — Wagner's book discusses the stunned reaction of Type O's label, Roadrunner, when they heard the demos for Slow, Deep and Hard's proper follow-up, which would feature swoonworthy singles like "Christian Woman" — but the run of Type O Negative albums that kicks off with 1996's October Rust, which turned 20 last month, and ends with 2007's Dead Again — the last album Steele ever made, sadly; Wagner's chronicle of the Dead Again follow-up that never was, and the Carnivore comeback album that might have accompanied it, is heartbreaking — shows a depth and range of emotion that rivals the work of just about any other singer-songwriter I know. Here are a few tracks that floored me during my latest listening binge.

"Nettie" (Life Is Killing Me, 2003)

A true Brooklyn love song from the man I've come to regard as the borough's unofficial poet laureate. (Born in Red Hook, Peter Steele, né Ratajczyk, lived most of his life in Midwood, in the basement of the same building he grew up in with his parents and five older sisters— again, Wagner's account of him eventually losing possession of the building in his last years is profoundly sad.) Here Steele pays tribute to his saintly mother ("True, I am the son of an angel / Maternally, not one woman compares"), while showing off his frankly insane vocal range (dig those opening lines, not treated one bit according to engineer and longtime Steele comrade Mike Marciano) and adding in some evocative local color (I love "Miss Red Hook of 1922" — presumably that's true of Nettie? — and "Heaven's just southwest of Cobble Hill").

"Todd's Ship Gods (Above All Things)" (Life Is Killing Me, 2003)

More local lore. A gorgeous evocation of lost youth via a remembrance of Steele's father (also named Peter Ratajczyk), who died in 1995. (Wagner recounts Steele rushing home from the midst of Type O's landmark tour with Pantera to be by his side.) The elder Peter had worked at Red Hook's Todd Shipyards, and Steele remembers him as a sort of paternal deity (while shouting out his "giant" stature, which Steele would famously inherit):

Grease, sweat, coffee, faded shipyard pictures
Giant living there I used to know
Author of the testosterone scriptures
Where did you go?

The lushness of the song's verses, studded with what Steele, Marciano and Type O's co-mastermind, keyboardist and producer Josh Silver, used to call sonic "fur," illustrates just how far the band had come from their early depressive-hardcore misery-scapes. Special props here to guitarist Kenny Hickey, a master wielder/weaver of dreamy post-psychedelic texture.

"I Like Goils" (Life Is Killing Me, 2003)

Steele's punkish response to the would-be male suitors that started to crop up in droves once he posed for Playgirl in '95, and the rare joke song I actually find myself grinning along with. (See also "How Could She?," with its impressively comprehensive catalog of female TV characters.) The track is sophomoric, but, I'd argue, all in good fun. Peter Steele was, among many other things, an expert comedian, and surfing the line of good/bad taste came with that territory:

So now, to make it clear that you can't bone me
My tattooed ass reads "EXIT ONLY"

And then, just so the message isn't mistaken for homophobia: "I hate all men including you."

"Everything Dies" (World Coming Down, 1999)

Little bit of a heavy-handed video clip there, but Steele and Co. were never above playing up the drama. We see him here at the Todd Shipyards themselves, ruminating on the fragility of life in endearingly plainspoken Brooklyn fashion:

Well I loved my aunt
But she died
And my uncle Lou
Then he died

The song is almost comically blunt, but the artful writing and arrangement make it into classy/classic  grown-up pop. Love how the dark, crunchy intro gives way to the sparse, melancholy keyboard-driven verse at around :30. Again, Hickey's leads help to crank up the song's pathos.

Die With Me (October Rust, 1996)

Love and death mingle once again (see also "Love You to Death" below and countless other Steele songs). Supposedly a goodbye to a woman named Elizabeth, one of a handful of serious partners Steele had throughout his life. Maybe the most moving, epic ballad Steele ever wrote, which is saying something.

"September Sun" (Dead Again, 2007) 

Type O Negative's very own "November Rain," again tinged with Brooklyn flavor ("rotted Flatbush porch"). A gorgeous, thoroughly adult song in the grand piano-pop tradition. Love those Hickey vocals on the bridge.

"Who Will Save the Sane?" (World Coming Down, 1999)


Speaking of adult pop, this one, with its bluesy bass lines, offbeat, pun-filled lyrics and world-weary tone, almost sounds like a Type O take on the Steely Dan vibe.

"Halloween in Heaven" (Dead Again, 2007)

Steele, at the tail end of his recording career, was seemingly having more fun than ever.  Dead Again is a special album for many reasons — not least because it's a set of extremely high-quality and deeply felt songs, rare for a band more than 25 years into its career — but one aspect of the record I keep coming back to is that it was the first Type O album to feature live drums since Bloody Kisses. After spending a lot of time with the interim albums (October Rust, World Coming Down and Life Is Killing Me), I can see the wisdom of opting for programmed drums on those records, where the band went to great lengths to evoke an ultra-dense post-Floyd aesthetic, but I'm really glad that for this final LP, they re-embraced the raucous energy of their hardcore roots and opted to record as a live band (marking Johnny Kelly's first appearance on live drums on a full Type O album after more than 20 years of membership in the group). "Halloween in Heaven" was Steele's tribute to his late friend "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott of Pantera. No time for downcast grief here; This is a party song. Gotta love Steele's riff on the classic "jamming in the afterlife" theme:

Bonham on drums, Entwistle on bass as guest morticians
Bon Scott on vox, Rhoads just for kicks, on guitar Hendrix
Lennon sits in with his friend George but where is Morrison?

Note shiver-inducing vocal cameo on the bridge from Tara Vanflower, singer of Lycia, one of Steele's favorite bands.

"Green Man" (October Rust, 1996)

Back to the Brooklyn theme (it never really leaves when you're talking about Peter Steele and Type O). Steele was the rare future rock star who actually had qualms about quitting his day job, a gig with the NYC Parks Department, to embrace a full-time touring life. By all accounts, he loved the work. Roadrunner Records employee Kathie Merritt, quoted in Soul on Fire:

"He really liked the organization. He liked everything to be regimented and planned and scheduled. He liked his job. He was the 'green man,' he drove around and cleaned parks, and I know he was really proud once he got into the union, because for him that was pension, it was retirement, it was security, it was everything that every guy from Brooklyn wanted to have."
Leave it to Steele to turn his green-uniformed park-worker gig into a kind of pagan fantasy, a pastoral meditation on the art of humble, day-in, day-out service, in which he imagines himself as a benevolent agent of nature. I've heard few songs that are more utterly transportive, and where the cliché of Overdubbed Nature Sounds feels more natural or poetic.

"Love You to Death" (October Rust, 1996)

In some ways the ultimate Peter Steele song, the musical moment in which he stepped up and owned his image of Vampiric Sex God more fully than he ever had before or ever would again. What a transformation: the man who more than once had barbarically addressed his lover as prey is now sublimating that aggression into selfless erotic service (as he intones on later October Rust track "Be My Druidess," "I'll do anything to make you cum"). There's a certain hamminess at play here, which Steele seems fully aware of ("Her hips move, and I can feel what they're saying, swaying"; "black lipstick stains a glass of red wine"). He never breaks character, though, opting instead for a full immersion in the mythology he pioneered on Bloody Kisses: the strings, the cavernous atmosphere, Silver's bluesy, stylized piano, the dreamy tempo, that impossibly supple croon. (And on the visual front, don't forget the fangs, actual modifications to his incisors, crafted by the Ratajczyk family dentist.) The video is basically superfluous: all of the imagery is right there in the song itself. "Her perfume smells like burning leaves," Steele had sung on the band's classic '93 anthem "Black No. 1 (Little Miss Scare-All). "Every day is Halloween." And so it can be, when you play this song.


Reflecting on Steele, his work and legacy, I've been thinking of the idea of persona, that special kind of superhero or heightened self that all great rock stars create. Steele's persona was one of the richest and most resonant that I know. Backed up by so many great songs, shot through with so much emotional heat, expressing everything from searing rage to simmering passion. There is a thing we call charisma, which really, I think, means fully embracing one's natural personality, flaunting it a little when necessary. And as an artist, Steele took that process a step further. Was there an element of theater there? Certainly. But reading Soul on Fire, I got the sense that all those many sides of himself, the anger, the sadness, the sarcasm, were constantly at war within him. And rarely do we get such an honest, potently distilled full-spectrum inventory of an artist's brain, heart and, yes, hometown pride as we did in his work. For the too-short time that he was here, Peter Steele, in true Brooklyn fashion, laid it all out there.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Goodbye, Lewis Merenstein

I'm hearing word that Lewis Merenstein has died. Merenstein was the producer of Van Morrison's holy Astral Weeks and the man responsible for bringing Richard Davis (pictured with Merenstein above) and other jazz musicians onto the date. If you've heard the album, you know that the seemingly simple act of assembling the group lies at the heart of its genius.

Here is my detailed 2009 interview with Mr. Merenstein on the making of the album. I only spent a couple hours with him, at a little restaurant on the Upper West Side, but I remember him as an exceedingly warm and gracious man. Four decades after the album's release, he still seemed to stand in awe of what Morrison and the musicians had achieved that day.

Fitting, since, to my knowledge, there is nothing else like this music anywhere:

The producer's art is a humble one, but in some special cases such as this, the handling of logistics, the calling of the shots, as it were, becomes a kind of spellcasting, and something new happens within the music that wouldn't have happened before. An idea — "What would happen if we brought this person into the mix?" — becomes the key that unlocks some untapped potential within the artist. In this case, it happened exactly once. Morrison and Merenstein would go on to make Moondance together, an excellent album that exists on a whole different plane: a pop masterpiece rather than some kind of heavenly avant-folk-jazz soundbath.

It's probably just as well that there isn't another record like this. It's the sound of a convergence, a moment, of various aesthetic currents crossing just that once. Thank you, Lewis Merenstein, for making it happen.