Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Colin Stetson - New History Warfare, Vol. 2: Judges (2011) REVIEW

Colin Stetson is a Montreal based, Michigan, US, born sax, clarinet, cornet, french horn and flute player who's got some resume, to say the least. People allergic to namedropping, please jump nine lines. He's a member of Bell Orchestre and Sway Machinery as well as accompanying on stage and in the studio dozens of artists, including Tom Waits, Arcade Fire, TV on the Radio, Feist, Bon Iver, Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, David Byrne, Jolie Holland, Sinead O’Connor, LCD Soundsystem, The National, Angelique Kidjo, and Anthony Braxton (1). Before that, he studied with reeds luminaries like Roscoe Mitchell (from Art Ensemble of Chicago, a.o.), Henry Threadgill and Steve Adams (he's a double bassist, whatever) to name a few (2). The guy's got credentials, it doesn't seem too hard for him to get a job.

He also recorded several albums under his own name or with his own combos, Transmission Trio (3) and Colin Stetson's Slow Decent (4). Both bands offer interesting music which can be filed into free jazz, but of a laidback almost cool kind. Slow Decent is by the way a good name for the music proposed. A couple of recordings from both projects can be streamed on bandcamp (see footnote references). Colin Stetson's most interesting and compelling works are definitely his solo recordings, which really means recordings in solo, just Colin Stetson, his reeds, or horns, and nothing else, no overdubs nor loop (5).

That said, when listening to "New History Warfare, Vol. 2: Judges", that statement is hard to believe. Many of these tracks have so many different sounds, overlapping and criss-crossing, that it doesn't seem humanly possible one man, and maybe one instrument, are making it in real time : percussion, bassline, unidentified higher layers and even vocals can be heard simultaneously. Some master reed (sax and clarinet) players were and still are already playing with multiphonics, the greatest masters being English Evan Parker, and in a more brutal way German Peter Brötzmann. To both European free improv veterans, a musician of a younger generation can be added and that's Swedish monumental sax player Mats Gustafsson. The later really pushes the boundaries of saxophone playing even further than imaginably possible, to the level that it doesn't sound like saxophone anymore but some new instrument that Gustafsson would have invented. Another musician worth mentioning is English John Butcher who succeeds to make his saxophone sounds like unheard electronic music. From now on, Colin Stetson can be added to this little list of real musical inventors on those instruments, and beyond.

However, listing these guys is somewhat misleading in Colin Stetson's case, and surely concerning this album "New History Warfare, Vol. 2". If Stetson's undoubtfully a jazz musician, for his background and present days projects, "New History Warfare, Vol. 2" near completely overthrows all preconceptions concerning any genre. First of all, and contrary to jazz, all tracks on this album are carefully composed and even arranged, if instantaneously, from beginning to end. These are songs without words. Take the second track titled "Judges", but there are many others, we've got a bass and percussion intro, a third contrapuntal layer appear in the background, then the vocals, which are repeated several times like song verses, to further transform themselves into a long refrain that lead into a bridge, without 'vocals', and finally the verses re-appears like some gruesome ritornello and the song ends. That's near traditional songwriting. And you would be surprised how haunting and even humming that 'song' can be, yes it contains a hook like in pop music. Only that's no pop music at all. Colin Stetson doesn't stick to this formula all through the album, far from it. The track "The righteous wrath of an honorable man" is the closest thing to Evan Parker's extremely repetitive loops, with that crucial difference that Parker is free improvising and he goes where his imagination brings him, Colin Stetson's way is again more composed and structured, which gives this track an almost baroque feature, or closer in time, classical minimalism, think Steve Reich, something like that.

Technically, Colin Stetson sticks almost for the entire album to circular breathing, playing continuously with his mouth while breathing through his nose, exactly like didgeridoo players, and like most Evan Parker's solo performances. It gives his tunes that haunting, shamanic and surely hypnotizing effects. What's completely exceptional is the sense of variation Stetson injects in his performances, the multiphonics never stops but it never falls into monotony. Now, his already outrageous multiphonic abilities on the instrument are enhanced by the recording process, 24 different mic positions were necessary to give this near orchestral aspects to the album, on different places in the room and on the instrument itself: on the keys, for percussion effect, close to Stetson's mouth, even his breathing is part of the mix, everywhere possible. The most exhilarating way to listen to this album is on headphones, contrary to even the best recorded sax solos, the listener is here completely imerged into the saxophone, the instrument being the very room you're standing, or lay, in. The album was mixed by sound magician Ben Frost, he knows his job, I believe. I wouldn't say this is the safest place on Earth though, there's thunder and lightning, earth shattering sounds, menacing monstrous sighs, the title of the album is "New History Warfare" after all, this is no ambient, chillout music, it's extremely intense like some noise music can be (Kevin Drumm, Merzbow, for example) but it's above all hugely organic, like being stuck in a dragon's throat before the beast spits fire. Also, Colin Stetson is mostly playing the monstrous and enormous bass saxophone (see picture, reference (5) below, and imagine the size of Stetson's lungs).

It's very often heard that nothing new is created and mostly that nothing new can be created, the most pessimistic declaring that everything has already been done before. Well, that statement must have popped up several times in the past, somewhere in the sixties for example, then Captain Beefheart released "Trout Mask Repica", and a bit before that, then Ornette Coleman issued "Free Jazz", or closer to us and darn Peter Rehberg aka Pita recorded "Get Out" and electronic music made before, and after, seems prehistorical, and whatelse. Well, here's Colin Stetson's "New History Warfare, Vol. 2: Judges".

Now, concerning the record itself as a whole, as a piece of work standing as what is called an 'album', I've got some important complains. And seeing the gigantic achievement this guy succeeded to create as a musician only, it almost upsets me to the level of moodiness. Before I go any further, I'd like to add that this is my opinion, subjective, like any reviews, mine especially, and there's no problem disagreeing with it, surely if I can change that opinion and stop complaining... again.

Colin Stetson fell in one contemporary and common trap, and that must be linked to his impressive address book : prestigious guests. It's hard to find even one album which has been improved by its famous guests, it's always (still looking for an exception) some drawback, but it looks good on the cover, it's like adding credentials to a job resume, only a record isn't a fucking job resume. First, Laurie Anderson's interventions on "A dream of water" are, how interesting the text can be, completely unnecessary and surely derivative, anyway distracting. It's also like giving a figurative title to an abstract painting. The album title and the music proposed is more than enough to understand what's going on and what's the, well, 'concept' behind this album. Furthermore, what's Colin Stetson is accomplishing here, the richness of sound and composition, the never-heard-before soundscapes, the depth of content and the fascinating sonic universe, is a world on its own and adding anything 'figurative', explicite, factual like a spoken word or even some field recording like water flowing at the end of "A dream of water" and the beginning of "Home" becomes mere embellishment, nothing more, which is less in this context, and rather pedestrian. The cover of Blind Willie Johnson's "Lord I Just Can't Keep From Crying Sometimes" is more debatable as an idea, I mean why not, but as soulful My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden is interpreting this song, her voice seems somewhat too polite, if not affected for me to be moved by it. Both Laurie Anderson's and Shara Worden's intrusions gives some self-aware masturbatory intellectual aspect to an album which is first and foremost a confrontation to our senses way before it affects our reason. Their presence just stops the catharsis.

As an album, I believe "New History Warfare, Vol. 1" (6) to be a more satisfactory affair, even if it's less technically achieved, on the instruments themselves and for the recording process. Indeed, it was recorded in rather the same way as any other solo musician albums. A perfect Colin Stetson's album would have been "Vol: 1" with the technical accomplishment of "Vol. 2" and I would have my first fucking A.

Despite these strong reserves, an exceptional album in all the meanings of that word, an album which grows after each listen and leave you breathless, yeah, but surely strikingly stunned.

8 out of 10

(1) (click DISCOGRAPHY)

  • Transmission Trio - Tiny Beast (2003) - 6
  • Colin Stetson's Slow Decent - Slow Decent (2003) - 7.5
  • Colin Stetson - New History Warfare Vol.1 (2008) - 8

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