Colin Stetson – New History Warfare, Vol. 2: Judges (2011)
by Andrew Kaster
Everything is a trend.
The pessimistic and unimaginative will lead you to believe there is nowhere for music to go other than in retrogressive reevaluation. The best we can hope for today involves artful fusions and re-interpretations of past sounds. We can do little but wait for the next trend to take hold. It’s simply not often we’re given an album that wades through the ether of the unknown and uninhibited. This is why when Collin Stetson puts his lips to the reed; he proves that in the midst of gimmicky musical tricks and impersonations, the belief that there is no uncharted territory in music is a load of bullshit.
New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges could be written off as some sort of avant-jazz concoction, though it would be downplaying the feats of this record. There are sounds collected here that are refreshingly original and exposed through Stetson’s iconoclastic methodology. Imbued with such vivid spontaneity (no overdubs or multiple takes were employed), they seem to be only possible through the sheer power of abstract, unhinged thought. With twenty-something microphones planted around Stetson as foliage, the sounds of violent clacking keys, the steady breath of Stetson, and the atonal residue of the instrument are recorded and mixed to different degrees. The result is something almost electronic in how otherworldly and humanly impossible it sounds. The gurgling tribal rhythms and oscillating tones of “Judges” and the samba beat of “Red Horse (Judges II)” provide the best examples of this seemingly sampled and manipulated sound. Both seem impossible to achieve without the aid of machinery, and yet the line between man and instrument are blurred ever so viciously.
Stetson follows a modal and rarefied philosophy on New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges. Motifs with loose connections to minimalism and pop and thematic set pieces weave the terrible sadness that haunts this album. With tracks such as “All the Days I’ve Missed You” and the uplifting “All the Colors Bleached to White”, Stetson composes himself with a sort of militant dignity and spirituality. And through the few poetic readings on this album (courtesy of Laurie Anderson), the defeatist post-war keening is dramatically conveyed. “There are those who didn’t run, there are those who couldn’t take it” she calmly speaks in the midst of the manic “A Dream of Water”, casting a glaze of genocidal horror over the album. Later, her contributions seem all the more important on the track “All the Colors Bleached to White”. The words “and so we wave our shredded flags, not knowing what they mean” are spoken amongst an angelic choir, digging out a trench of emotional depth in the center of the album. Anderson isn’t the only guest vocalist though; My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worde appears on the eerie cover, “Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying Sometimes”. Both the voices of Anderson and Worde are not merely superfluous though; they’re essential in providing a much needed soul to balance out the strange amniotic coldness.
Above all, the focus here still remains on Stetson. He literally breathes life into his instrument, personifying it as a daunting, wheezing, lumbering beast. Struggling through spaciousness and claustrophobia, he emits a tense atmosphere. It is sometimes beautiful (such as on the string-like vibrato of “From No Part of Me Could I Summon a Voice”), sometimes guttural (best achieved on the Flying Lotus-esc clockwork of “Home” and “Fear of the Unknown and the Blazing Sun”), yet always hypnotic and sobering. Stetson’s personality becomes one in the same with the saxophone, as his expressiveness bleeds into every key and every tempo. While amazingly technical, he never loses sight on the emotive power that he holds. As such, the album becomes meditative and wildly emotional all at once.
Despite all of the analysis, there is still nothing that fully explains how this album was crafted. The skill level seems almost fictionalized in its approach. New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges documents the inner-workings of the mind with levers, pulleys, and weights being operated by some sort of flawless intuition; call it instinct. It’s a daunting album with oceanic brevity achieved through its endlessly echoing drone. The best way to approach it is to do like Stetson. Become part of the mechanism: wheezing, breathing, spitting, groaning, and moaning in unison. By putting all of his ideas in the iron sights of his spur-of-the-moment reactions, Stetson discovers a new unalloyed and beating heart within the bowels of his instrument. The sound recorded here is not just the instrument and its performer, but the deafening cry that silence being torn apart makes.