Colin Stetson
New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges


(I'm gonna tell readers how I "discovered" the best rock album for solo saxophone of the last sixty years thanks to a blog by a well-known jazz pianist. Other things, too.)

It's quite possible that some readers will find the concept of my late "discovery" of an album released about five months ago - New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges; also the featured artist - to be quite bizarre. Trouble is, the "selective knowledge" that for some time now has been a qualifying trait of those whose task is to make us aware of what's happening in music, given the sheer quantity that's nowadays considered as being the norm (two hundred reviews per issue for a monthly, five reviews per day for a webzine) makes the value of the information that's given to us just as aleatory as the pay these people receive. There are also, of course, those whose motto is "I'll listen to it, then I'll make my own mind about it" - but what about the selecting process that makes us aware of just some titles as being worthy candidates for further analysis?

So, it was thanks to a favourable post by Ethan Iverson about a fine concert by Colin Stetson, also about his most recent album, that I heard about him, from a valuable source. Iverson is obviously the pianist in the jazz trio The Bad Plus, but he's also the soul of a music blog where the learning/teaching dimension is considered to be of great importance (Iverson is an ace interviewer, too). Iverson is quick to notice what's valuable in the "technical" side of Stetson: circular breathing, and multiphonics, in a solo dimension that's aesthetically not too far from some indie-rock and "electronica", albeit in an acoustic dimension.

Though I didn't have any precise memories, I was quite sure I'd read Stetson's name before. So I did a Web search, and I found that he's a featured player on albums by such names as Tom Waits, Arcade Fire, TV On The Radio, Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, and Bon Iver.

Listening to New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges made me immediately realize that Stetson (who to me looks like he's in his mid-30s) has studied jazz quite in depth: the techniques he employs on the album tell of a deep familiarity with those saxophone players we nowadays define as being "classic" and "avant-garde" at the same time. Judging from a couple interviews I happened to find on the Web, Stetson is quite a honest man, very quick to put those very generous comments he got from some very generous interviewers about his "prodigious technical innovations" in the right perspective.

While it's very easy to be detected in his instrumental "pronunciation" and techniques, jazz doesn't seem to figure that much in Stetson's compositional approach, at least judging from what i heard on this album. (There are quite a few traces of Minimalism.) So I was quite puzzled when I saw Peter Brötzman and Albert Ayler being mentioned in a few reviews - but then I noticed those names were mentioned in the album's press release (which I had to access in order to read the album's credits, since the fine shadings on the CD cover made it all but impossible to me to read the song titles, the names of the players, and those various technical credits and thanks).

The album was recorded live in the studio in real time, with no overdubbing or loops, the main exception being the (female) guest vocalists I'll refer to in a moment. New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges was produced by Shahzad Ismaily and Colin Stetson, recorded by Efrim Menuck at Hotel2Tango, Montreal, and mixed by Ben Frost at Greenhouse Studios, Reykjavik.

I listened to the album a couple times through my loudspeakers, but when a few transistors in my amplifier started behaving badly (just a way for my ampli to express its opinion, perhaps?), I decided to conduct my listening sessions though headphones and CD player only. Though the fact of the album's tracks having been recorded via multiple mics, the mix being quite varied and involved, was quite apparent when the sounds reverberated in my room, listening through headphones made it really possible for me to examine the sound in close-up. It's apparent that this side of the work is quite "rock"-sounding, with a big contribution by Ben Frost, who could be said to be a de facto co-producer.

The compositions have strong "themes", and they are subjected to a process of change via "timbre" and "proportions" of the parts, not though "variations" in the common sense. The recording stage makes use of about two dozen mics, variously positioned in the room, with some mics attached to the instrument(s), with a contact microphone being attached to Stetson's throat (does anybody remember Brian Eno's "electric larynx"?). It goes without saying that here the mixing doesn't mirror a real experience, but builds an "artificial" one. So the listener is confronted with changing, shifting, aural planes, where the sax keys assume a percussive character and the breath in the reed acquires "impossible" proportions.

Let's have a quick look at the album tracks.

Awake On Foreign Shores, for bass sax, has a changing environment (and lotsa mics), and a brief melodic phrase at the end.

Judges has the bass sax impersonating a synth loop, the sax keys acting percussively, a simple melody, quite "folkish", with vocals though the reed and the throat microphone. Multiple sound perspectives. At the end, Laurie Anderson has a few words.

The Stars In His Head (Dark Lights Remix) in a way reminded me of the way Tangerine Dream used the sequencer, and of some Minimalism traces in mid-70s "Krautrock". Bass ostinatos, overtones, for tenor sax.

All The Days I've Missed You (ILAIJ I) is a brief, simple track, linked to track 10.

From No Part Of Me Could I Summon A Voice almost sounds like a string quartet; it's an alto, with a choir in the background that gradually comes to the fore.

A Dream Of Water has a narration by Laurie Anderson on an ostinato arpeggio played at both ends of the instrument - a tenor sax. There appears to be a "political" dimension to the album, too.

Home, for bass sax, has a slow arpeggio, a high vocal phrase, with a "folk" air underlined by "percussion".

Lord I Just Can't Keep From Crying Sometimes is a traditional blues sung by Shara Worden, the bass sax enriching the vocal performance.

Clothed In The Skin Of The Dead is quite Minimalist, with arpeggios on tenor sax, it slowly becomes quite samba-like.

All The Colors Bleached To White (ILAIJ II), narrated by Laurie Anderson with vocals in the background, sends us back to track 4.

Red Horse (Judges ll) sounds quite hip-hop, with scratching, percussive keys, winds, and hands.

The Righteous Wrath Of An Honorable Man is performed on alto sax, it reminded me a bit of Terry Riley.

Fear Of The Unknown And The Blazing Sun features Laurie Anderson narrating on the left channel, a fuzz bass sax, and Shara Worden on a multi-channel "Gregorian chant".

In Love And In Justice has drones by bass sax, vocal parts, blowing, and fuzz.

Stetson is a fine musician, but I'd really like to listen to these tracks performed live, in real time, with no effects, on a "clean" saxophone. Sure, it's entirely possible that the end result will amount just to a poor person's Braxton, or Mitchell. But I'm afraid that in the end Ben Frost's treatments - which in my opinion are the main ingredient here that'll make those who consider Sonic Youth as being "avant-garde" appreciate this album - could prove to be a crutch for a musician whose compositional sense is not yet on a par with his considerable technical skills (so maybe my amplifier was right?). Maybe at this point the best thing one could wish for Stetson is to find a great leader under whose wings he'll have the chance to grow (but who'll pay the leader?).

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2011 | Aug. 1, 2011