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Anyone who believes club music is all about positive vibes needs to check out “Do You Remember House?,” the first single from Blaze’s new Spiritually Speaking LP. Against an urgent, metallic rhythm track lifted from the late ’80s, frequent band collaborator Palmer Brown recites a sneering critique of modern house, particularly its recent acceptance into the mainstream: “I remember house when house was more than just a name to package this sound, this groove, this emotion/I remember house when there was just one house/I remember house when house had artists, songwriters, and personalities.” After running through a list of buzzwords used to subdivide and market the newer music—”techno,” “Afro,” “deep,” “hard”—Brown simply asks, “Do you remember house?” The sentiment is akin to that of old hiphop heads longing for the end of the jiggy dynasty.
Blaze’s bitterness is understandable and, to a certain degree, justified. Kevin Hedge and Josh Milan, who make up the New Jersey-based duo, have been in the game for almost 20 years. Unlike many British acts that brand their sound “garage,” Hedge and Milan are genuine graduates of the genre’s legendary namesake club, New York’s Paradise Garage. And Hedge, along with DJ Timmy Regisford and Shelter Records’ Freddy Sanon, even created his own bit of clubland legend, the roving underground party Shelter, which nourished beat-starved New Yorkers for more than a decade. But despite this impressive resume—as well as collaborations with such celebrated producers as Masters at Work and Joe Claussell and remixes for artists such as Macy Gray and Jamiroquai—Blaze has yet to gain name recognition outside of the club-kid intelligentsia.
The group came close to rising aboveground when it released the prophetic 25 Years Later on Motown in 1990. The album was a triumphant reconciliation of club music with its ’70s-R&B and jazz roots, and is now a coveted collectors’ item. But at the time of its release, 25 Years Later fell victim to misdirected promotion and poor sales. As a result, Blaze failed to realize its crossover potential, lost a member, and, to very little fanfare, began releasing a slew of singles and a handful of albums on small indie labels.
But Spiritually Speaking is not as much concerned with Blaze’s elusive superstardom as it is with the very soul of club music, both musically and lyrically. For Blaze, it’s not enough to have great music and no positive message. And what’s the point of having a good message if the music is inferior? The group constructs elaborate, multilayered songs that flow as if they were coming from a live band rather than cut-and-paste studio producers. Blaze sometimes embellishes its music with spoken-word interludes, extended piano and horn solos, and Afro-Caribbean percussion, but it never allows sophistication to get in the way of soulfulness. From its high-speed opener, “Melodies of Love,” to its slow-groove closer, “World Peace,” Spiritually Speaking puts forward one idea: that the spirit and mind alike can be elevated through the gyrations of the body.
What separates Hedge and Milan from the rest of the free-your-ass-and-your-mind-will-follow pack is that they rely less on digging through the crates for vintage sampling material and more on their own musicality. In addition to being stellar DJs and producers, they’re both instrumentalists of considerable talent. Milan, in particular, contributes heavily to the group’s warm, made-by-hand feel through his keyboard playing, which is grounded more in the black church than the jazz club. On the dreamy instrumental “Gloria Muse (The Yoga Song),” he hammers out a solo filled with dramatic tremolos, lamenting melodic figures, and heavenly upper-register filigrees—all atop a rolling three-note bass line and a churning conga beat. Hedge is also a master of complicated counterpoint, but he can bang out a groove so feet-friendly that its intricacy goes unnoticed, whether he’s adopting elements of disco, Afrobeat, or Latin jazz.
Though Blaze’s influences are incredibly varied, the group owes its greatest debt to Earth Wind & Fire, both sonically and philosophically. From the soaring gospel harmonies to the punchy horn riffs to the passionate lyrics on the themes on brotherhood and spirituality, Blaze runs a serious risk of becoming labeled an EW&F knockoff. As magical as the bass-laden “One World” no doubt sounds on the dance floor, it’s overly reminiscent of the title song from EW&F’s 1976 Spirit. And Spiritually Speaking’s infectious second single, “Breathe,” with its staccato melody, fiery horns, and sweet harmonies, more than a little recalls “Boogie Wonderland.”
But fashioning its music after EW&F only rarely works to Blaze’s disadvantage. The upside of such emulation is that Blaze also echoes the earlier group’s sense of purpose. Hedge and Milan’s conviction that dance music can serve a higher function than mere ass-shaking comes through loudest and clearest on Spiritually Speaking’s centerpiece, “Black Byrd Interlude/Spiritually Speaking.” On the track, Blaze deconstructs the letters of the band’s name and then elaborates on their spiritual meanings: “Ancient wisdom tells us arrows show directions…/The word begins with the letter B/The letter is made up of 2 circles/1 above the other and 1 vertical line…/The lower circle represents the lower world of thoughts like materialism and physical pleasures/The upper circle relates to higher levels of thought like spiritual and metaphysical thinking.” And so on through E, whose four lines “represent the four great teachers of faith from the Holy Bible.”
The verbiage is certainly complex, but the rumbling djembe cadence that underpins it makes “Spiritually Speaking” sound more like a passionate spoken-word performance than a dry semiotics lecture. It also helps that Blaze revisits the song’s musical theme twice—first on the after-hours jazz of “Black Byrd” and then on the thumping techno of “Black Byrd Flying Free.” It’s hard to say which cut more effectively evokes the peace-love-and-self-understanding lyrics: “Black Byrd” features some transcendent soprano-sax work from Daryl Dixon, whereas “Flying Free” makes its point through gorgeous vocal harmonies, some heavenly strings, and Dave Watson’s soaring flute solo.
Spiritually Speaking sounds as if it were conceived during the twilight period between late-Saturday-night dancing and early-Sunday-morning church service. Ambitious yet highly accessible musically, conceptually, and intellectually, it offers ample proof that Hedge and Milan more than just remember house: They also redefine it. CP