Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Record Review: Colin Stetson - New History Warfare, Vol. 2: Judges

Being as information is now arguably the world’s most everyday luxury, it’s rare for an artist working in any artistic medium to deliver a work so unexpected as to realign everything you’ve previously known or even imagined being created by them. Such is the case, however, with experimental saxophonist Colin Stetson and his impressively ambitious second album, New History Warfare, Vol. 2: Judges. Part of the reason the record seems so left-field brilliant, at least from my perspective, probably has something to do with Stetson’s prior list of collaborators. Amidst less publicized work with Anthony Braxton and Laurie Anderson (who plays an important role herself on Vol. 2), Stetson has cut studio and stage time alongside TV On the Radio, Arcade Fire, Feist, the National, and other high profile indie mainstays. Good artists all, but none of which belie much of a camaraderie with free-improv jazz or experimental drone. With his new album, however, Stetson has gone from sideline collaborator to out-music demigod, and he deserves every last bit of ink spilled over this singular achievement.

Technique tends to comes up a lot in conversations regarding experimental music, yet in the case of Colin Stetson it’s almost essential to fully appreciating the intricacies of what he’s trying to accomplish. Sure, wigs will be suitably flipped by “Red Horse (Judges II)” regardless of what the listener brings to the table, but pieces such as “From No Part of Me Could I Summon a Voice” and “The Righteous Wrath of an Honorable Man” necessitate a reconciliation with Stetson’s circular breathing methods and unique arrangement of microphones, wherein multiple mics are placed diplomatically around the room and, in a particularly key maneuver, grafted onto his oversized bass sax itself. This creates the effect of dozens of tones working simultaneously amidst the soundfield, straddling—and in many cases obliterating—the line between full-bodied drone and synchronized jazz outburst. The mind’s left reeling as Stetson somehow adds vocalization to these single-take improvisations, yet Vol. 2 never devolves into a simple show of technical strength. In fact, the album thrives on the contradiction between Stetson’s elaborate recording assemblage and the record’s natural procession from tense and unruly to placid and disquieting.

The amount of stylistic ground Stetson covers across the record’s fourteen track sequence is equally impressive. The dark reverberation of the almost-title track ("Judges”) yields a pressing dynamism between Stetson’s manipulated key figures and his horn-fed exultations. Elsewhere, on twin segues “All the Days I’ve Missed You (ILAIJ I)” and “All the Colors Bleached to White (ILAIJ II)” Stetson arrays blindingly bright tonal palpitations in a circular pattern, turning these short bridges into heart-swelling little miniatures. Even his few vocal collaborators are perfectly chosen, bravely employed, and integral to the album’s overriding theme. Spiritual forebear Laurie Anderson makes a few key spoken-word appearances throughout the album, articulating a pre-occupation with the devastation of war and the tyranny of government, intimating their joint potential to facilitate what sounds like an inevitable apocalypse. It’s a grim series of pronouncements, transcending its hoax-y distinction as spoken word to a degree where these apocryphal meditations simultaneously solidify the album’s thematic conceit and its carefully sequenced sonic landscape into one intimidating declaration of intent.

It’s My Brighest Diamond’s Shara Worden, however, who offers the album’s most impressive standalone vocal display on centerpiece “Lord I Just Can’t Keep from Crying Sometimes,” a Blind Willie Johnson tune retrofitted as this record’s beating heart. Worden imbues the track with a certain soulfulness not present throughout most of Vol. 2’s running time, her powerful reading allowing for just a hint of hope amid surroundings more often bleak and defeated. Yet here and elsewhere Stetson remains the engine powering the album’s simmering momentum. There are moments on Vol. 2 that bring to mind such disparate artists as Evan Parker, Rhys Chatham, Tortoise, Rip Rig + Panic, and the aforementioned Anthony Braxton (among others), but it’s amazing how little direct sonic correlation any of these musicians have with Stetson. The album therefore can sound at any given moment like variations on jazz, drone, free rock, or even industrial, but ultimately Vol. 2 stands alone amidst the rubble of outlying genres. It’s the year’s most unexpected, staggering, and original work of pure experimentation. [InRO]

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