Saxophonist Colin Stetson’s sophomore effort, New History Warfare Vol.2: Judges, is replete with a thundering sadness, a boisterous silence, and noises that come from the outer reaches and from deep inside. Over the course of 44 minutes and 14 tracks, Stetson reimagines and exploits the language and techniques of jazz to create his own one-man improvisational grammar that includes concentrated tiers of multiphonic reverberations, percussive tones, mournful moans, and spinning, cyclic lines.
Some listeners might know Stetson through his association with alternative groups. He has toured with The National and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, worked with Belle Orchestre, and recorded with Tom Waits, Arcade Fire, TV on the Radio, and Bon Iver. But it is Stetson’s solo performances which are the stuff legends are made of. Think of combining Arvo Pärt’s spiritual polyphony with Peter Brötzmann’s sonic aggressiveness, and Mogwai’s dramatic dynamics alongside Anthony Braxton’s jazz futurism. It is all here on pieces that move from dissonance to beauty and from dread to ambient approachability.
Although most of the compositions stand apart from each other, over the album’s length it often sounds as if Stetson never stops playing as he pours out soft, loud, and overlapping notes. And that is because he doesn’t take a break. Stetson uses circular breathing and deploys various instruments – alto, tenor, and bass sax, as well as French horn – to make continual music that may appear to be looped and/or performed by a group of musicians but is not. He also employs deep breaths and adds clacks, whacks and percussive effects with his horn reeds, which aid Stetson’s conceptual momentum.
While this approach may seem like an avant-garde experiment, Stetson’s material is progressively accessible. Each track has a story, mood, or personality. Stetson admits he learned from Waits how to throw out the ego and spotlight a song’s character and setting, and how to harness the essentials to create a scene and bring personae into existence. Stetson does this largely without lyrics or text. The narrative sense is frequently driven by instrumental qualities, not vocals. Yet voices are key components to specific pieces.
Likeminded auditory explorer Laurie Anderson provides terse, poetical dialogue to the Philip Glass-esque, post-apocalyptic “A Dream of Water,” which might have been inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. Anderson appends a much briefer notation at the conclusion of the otherworldly “Judges.” During “All the Colors Bleached to White (ILAIJ II)” Anderson recites enigmatic lines. “Red is a fast color only zooming away,” she intones,” this was something everyone knew.” On the medley “Fear of the Unknown and the Blazing Sun,” Stetson applies post-production editing to shape a duet between Anderson and My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden. Worden is prominently featured on a reconstituted version of the gospel hymn “Lord, I Just Can’t Keep from Crying Sometimes,” a dirge-like cut which embodies suffering and the search for salvation and focuses on the difficult balance between faith and doubt. It is easily the most moving presentation.
The core material, though, is Stetson’s instrumentals. One notable song is “The Stars in His Head (Dark Lights Remix),” a re-interpretation of a Bell Orchestre cut. Listeners might recognize it since it was included on a 2009 Bell Orchestre remix project. Stetson enhances his honking sax solo and a repeating motif with vocalizations produced by actually singing through his sax. The result is like a phantomed chorus. The sepulchral “Clothed in the Skin of the Dead” uses a recurrent theme where Stetson subtly shifts timbres to generate arpeggiated lines which intersect and interrelate. While many tracks have a cinematic correlation, the closing work, “In Love and in Justice,” is the most filmic item. The ephemeral arrangement has a sensitive sympathy akin to one of the final sections in Terrence Malick’s World War II motion picture, The Thin Red Line (1998), when a soldier meets death with calm detachment and blissful inevitability.
New History Warfare Vol.2: Judges is more than a snapshot of an artist in the studio. During the recording Stetson organized 20 microphones around him. Afterward he mixed and manipulated the taped music to construct an alternate edition of the studio experience and, in the process, evolved the album into something built on improvisations but formulated into a design which is different than what exists in reality. It is too soon to tell just how far Stetson’s imagination and theoretical framework will take him but one thing is clear, his forthcoming activity will be fascinating to hear.Visit: Colin Stetson | Constellation
Purchase: Insound | eMusic