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Colin Stetson - New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges

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Artist: Colin Stetson

Album: New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges

Label: Constellation

Review date: Mar. 16, 2011

In an interview with Alarm Press, saxophonist Colin Stetson makes reference a number of times to the fact that heís working within a larger history, mining extended techniques that others have used before him. Thatís certainly true, but it says nothing of how different Stetsonís music is from the avant-garde jazz that birthed the tricks of his trade. On New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges, Stetsonís considerable talent as a player is the original draw, but just a few tracks in, it becomes clear that his skill at sustaining moods is just as integral as his sustained circular breathing

New History Warfare Vol. 1, released in 2008 on Aagoo records, is Stetsonís only prior solo full-length, but itís not like he hasnít been getting his name out there. A musical Zelig, Stetsonís name pops up all over othersí discographies: Stetsonís appeared on records by Tom Waits, Arcade Fire and TV on the Radio, amongst others. These extracurricular activities have had an effect on his compositional mindset, and the result can be heard on Judges, which, for all its impressive chops, is an album of tone over technique.

Stetsonís playing on Judges was recorded live, in single takes, by 24 microphones (the mics were arranged around the room, with some on Stetsonís instrument, and even on his throat), executed with no looping and no overdubs. This one-man band can seem like heís playing three parts at one time, sometimes on three different instruments, accompanying himself fluidly for minutes without once coming up for breath. Whatís most impressive is Stetsonís precision; the physical demand of the music can be felt through the speakers, but the music comes off more like a meticulously layered multi-track recording. Melodic spirals, mournful drones and thumping rhythms take roost with more indescribable propulsions, the two dozen microphones allowing for tweaking and mixing across wide timbral and spatial spectrums. The diversity of Stetsonís arsenal isnít on display for its own sake, though, with showiness eschewed in the interest of compositions that unabashedly strive for the cinematic.

New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges is an album of somber beauty, its flashes of color existing amidst a broad spectrum of grays. Like experimental films than toy with narrative and bend the viewerís expectations in terms of plot, the album hints at some underlying tale, but, in the end, Judges is more concerned with atmosphere than event. ďA Dream of Water,Ē with its visions of the chaos, despair and confusion, and Stetsonís cover of Blind Willie Johnsonís ďLord I Just Canít Keep From Crying SometimesĒ are the discís most evocative tracks, the former featuring Laurie Andersonís familiar spoken delivery, the latter a slow, sorrowful performance from Shara Worden. Many of Judges compositions are relatively straight lines, explorations of a theme or technique that, save for a few exceptions, arenít especially demonstrative in their emotion. This way, Stetson avoids much of the constructed inevitability and dynamic shifts that can so blandly constitute emotional import in instrumental music. The inclusion of a choir on ďAll the Colors Bleached to WhiteĒ and some of Andersonís spoken work can feel a little too heavy, but moments of melodrama are fleeting, and change is always afoot. Itís rare that a track sounds too much like those that come before or after: in one of the most striking pairings, the beatbox-esque ďRed Horse (Judges II)Ē is followed by the ecstatic ďThe Righteous Wrath of an Honorable Man,Ē with its hints of Albert Ayler, Stetsonís purest nod toward the sound of classic free jazz.

There are assuredly other saxophonists whose abilities are equal to those of Stetson, composers of comparable merit, and his tactics in the studio, though elaborate, arenít unprecedented. New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges sounds a little like a lot of things that have come before it, its path moving through free jazz, minimalism, and post-rock on its way to a locale with few close neighbors.

By Adam Strohm

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