When you first hear Colin Stetson's music, you'll be delighted by the artfully crafted compositions that are made up of enough weird sounds, rhythms, and textures to make the avant-garde lover inside you rejoice. His compositions in themselves belong among the greatest of the last few years that seeks to successfully erase the lines between classical and popular music by creating artistic music that is as accessible as it is complex. Stetson has the musical courage of a postminimalist composer, the musicianship of a modern jazz performer, and the vibrant energy of an indie pop arranger. That's all thrown out the window, however, once you find out that the dude plays all the parts of his songs by himself on solo saxophone of all things. That's right, every weird noise, rhythmic sound, and melody here is produced by Stetson and his sax alone and was recorded it single takes with as many as 20 microphones being used at once. Because of the Stetson's use of unique extended techniques and production, the recordings capture some of the most strange and interesting sounds to ever come out of a saxophone. But most importantly, Stetson's grand musicianship and performance credibility always comes second to creating musically rich and memorable compositions.
Stetson's compositions bounce in some areas and croon in others, like a one man saxophone band trying to sound like a electronic, studio-produced, dubstep band. The album starts out with a track called "Awake on Foreign Shores", which features a title and brass blasts that to me recall the opening scene of Inception. The intro track is followed by a piece called "Judges", in which Stetson creates an unforgettable texture of Hans Zimmer-like arpeggios that cycle like a washing machine while the devastatingly smokey melody forces itself to the front of the mix. The energetic rhythmic impulses of Stetson's playing will sound commonplace by the time you get through this album, yet Stetson usually seems to always find ways to make his style sound fresh.
My only hesitation with the album is that it runs just a little too long and include an abundance of shorter tracks that sometimes feel a bit undeveloped. I would have loved to hear some more fleshed-out tracks that explore and emphasize some of the different harmonic and melodic motifs that Stetson introduces. The welcomed collaborations with the spoken word poetry of Laurie Anderson and singing of My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden do help to balance the album out and retrieve the album from the lingering too long in the waters of "instrumental music". In the gospel-tinted song "Lord I Just Can't Keep From Crying Sometimes", Stetson's eerie single-note accompaniment paints Worden's blues melody in shades of sorrow and grief in the same vein as James Blake. The collaborations climax with the song "Fear of the Unknown and The Blazing Sun", a beautiful reminder of the powerful possibilities of the collaboration of such confident artists.
New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges doesn't always feel like a comprehensive work, yet it is praiseworthy for its musicianship and accessibility alone and is revolutionary in its use of the solo saxophone and the production of solo music. It is a clear artistic evolution of Stetson's first solo album and points to an exciting future for the artist. Stetson is another fantastic addition to the growing group of Canada-based, indie pop/classical/jazz musicians that include the likes of Owen Pallett and Sarah Neufeld, who are relentlessly reshaping the way we think of terms like "pop", "singer-songwriter", and "composer".
Colin Stetson - Judges