A Healing Sound: Blue Cranes, Ahleuchatistas, and Like a Villain

In a triple bill at Portland's Mississippi Studios, three very different bands find common ground in musical catharsis

by MATT MARBLE

“The next song…” Holland Andrews says to the audience, “this next song is about death. Or—more specifically, it’s about where the soul goes after you die.” Andrews’ current work, as Like a Villain, responds to the childhood tragedy of her mother’s suicide. This existential reflection would resound throughout a May 24 evening at Mississippi Studios. But the ambiance wasn’t morose. On the contrary: it was a wildly expressive celebration of sound. If there is one thing that links the three unique artists who performed that night, it is: catharsis. The healing catharsis of music. Overcoming tragedy, undergoing intense change, radically questioning the world, experimenting and exploring—music offers itself as a document, expression, and an antidote to suffering as well as a technology of the visionary self.

Like a Villain.

Like a Villain.

Though coming from different aesthetic touchstones, the music of Blue Cranes, Ahleuchatistas, and Like A Villain overflows with passion, sonic experimentation, stylistic fusion, and virtuosic lyricism. These are full-spectrum artists and extremely talented musicians, entering their own maturity and rapidly evolving. From whimsical sunshine to deep dark shadow, they fearlessly confront and reconstruct the drama of Life through their soul-drenched musics.

Like a Villain: Ritualistic Dramas

This is especially true for Like A Villain’s Holland Andrews. I’d heard Andrews previously as a member of the band Au—she was recently featured in Au’s collaboration with the Camas High School Choir, and she nearly stole the show. But she has been honing her solo work for years.

Like a Villain, which began in 2010, makes use of all Andrews’ talents. From primordial screams and soulful crooning to operatic arias and ghostly whispers, Andrew’s voice alone is a tour de force. Working with electronics, clarinet, and glockenspiel, her voice floats and rips through experimental soundscapes—a fusion of dramatic storytelling and sonic shamanism—or, “AMBIENT BROADWAY OPERA DRONE NOISE POP,” as she describes her music on Facebook. Joe Cunningham and Reed Wallsmith joined their saxes to Andrews’ clarinet for one song, adding lush and soulful chamber music textures to her largely electronic set. After finishing each of her ritualistic dramas, Holland would immediately allow a child-like smile and a shy, sincere “thank you” to slip out of her mouth. From song to song and sometimes minute to minute, Andrew’s voice literally transformed itself.

Ahleuchatistas: Virtuosic dynamism

“Movement and the constant outstripping of itself” is how Ahleuchatistas describe their sound. Hailing from the Blue Ridge Mountains, their name refers to Charlie Parker’s mid 20th century bebop classic, “Ah-leu-cha,” and the Mexican revolution of the Zapatistas. The urgency and determination of social revolution and the frenetic virtuosity of Parker are both audible in this North Carolina duo’s music. So are bluegrass and math rock, video games, avant-garde composition, ritual, Indonesian gamelan, heavy metal, and the Muppets.

Ahleuchatistas

Ahleuchatistas

Shane Parish (guitar, plus loops and effects) and Ryan Oslance (drums, chains, bells) played before video projections of feedback saturated images (tiger eyes, fish, or a live feed of themselves performing). At times their virtuosic dynamism could feel too meandering or restless, but moments of intense yet intricate energy would always regain the ears’ attention. The duo’s most recent album, Arrebato (Spanish for “passionate outburst”), shows their playing and composition becoming more meticulous, almost crystaline, it’s through line more finely honed, and yet also raw, like the interior of a geode. And now I’m definitely awaiting Parrish’s upcoming releases: a solo album for John Zorn’s Tzadik label, collaborative recordings with Bhutanese guitarist Tashi Dorji on MIE Music, and a chamber improv trio with cellist Emmalee Hunnicutt and bassist Frank Meadows on Blue Tapes.

Blue Cranes: Transcendental Crests

Blue Cranes, now well-regarded Portland natives, closed the show out with a vibrant set of “songs and improvisations,” including Holland Andrews for one song. Saxophonists Cunningham and Wallsmith, Rebecca Sanborn (keys), Jon Shaw (Bass), and Ji Tanzer (drums). For a few years now they have been praised for their “post-jazz” genre-blurring music. Their most recent record, Swim (2013), produced by the Decemberist’s Nate Query, supplied the bulk of the concert’s music.

Blue Cranes: Reed Wallsmith, Rebecca Sanborn, Joe Cunningham, Jon Shaw and Ji Tanzer at Mississippi Studios last year.

Blue Cranes: Reed Wallsmith, Rebecca Sanborn, Joe Cunningham, Jon Shaw and Ji Tanzer at Mississippi Studios last year.

The Blue Cranes’ far-flung influences bring to mind the Twin Peaks soundtrack, the beat-pop of ’90s band Morphine, the explorations of Phil Cohran and his post-Sun Ra music family, Ethiopiques compilations, the Love of Life Orchestra, Miles Davis, the “post-classical” compositions of Rachels. Eliciting such diverse echoes only shows how the Blue Cranes have honed their unique voice as an ensemble. “Beautiful Winners” and “Painted Birds” especially showcased their compositional development and performative synergy. And throughout, the focus and enjoyment of the performers was infectious.

As with Like a Villain and Ahleuchatistas, the music of Blue Cranes is exploratory in form, fusing composition with free improvisation, and it is on a mission to solicit transcendental crests in the flow of their music. That said, the Blue Cranes were by far the most accessible music from the night’s offerings. But the undertone of the concert constantly returned us to mystery of mortaliy. As Like a Villain’s music responded to the loss of Andrew’s mother, the Blue Cranes have been exploring themes of death and transformation in their recent work, as life has dealt them some personal losses, as well as births and marriages, along the way. The music of the night was heavy, but uplifting—transcendent you might say. I am sure it is cathartic for the performers. And I have no doubt that some listeners left the concert transformed or at least inspired—I know I did.

Matt Marble (1979, MS, Scorpio) lives in Portland, Oregon. He works with text, image, sound, and spirit. Matt received his B.A. in Speech & Hearing Sciences from Portland State University, and he recently received his Ph.D. in music composition from Princeton University. Matt’s writings have been published by Abraxas Journal, The Open Space, Leonardo Music Journal, Ear|Wave|Event, and FOARM Magazine.

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