Upon hearing the phrase “solo saxophone” its hard not to imagine Kenny G concerts and grocery store “adult contemporary” covers of Beatles songs. The thought alone is enough to make me drowsy. Admittedly, when faced with the prospect of reviewing a solo saxophone album, I was a bit turned off. It’s been a long time, however, since a piece of music has so thoroughly defied my expectations.
Colin Stetson has played with the likes of Tom Waits and TV on the Radio, among others, and is a touring member of Arcade Fire. New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges is, as you might have surmised, the second album released under his own name. Volume 1 featured various brass and wind instruments played together, whereas this album consists entirely of solo horn compositions, with occasional guest vocals by Laurie Anderson and Shara Worden. What surprised me most about Vol. 2 was that the album used no looping or overdubs. The different tones you hear were made possible, in part, by using no less than 24 different microphone positions, each picking up different harmonic overtones that add to the overall texture of each piece.
While we’re on the subject, texture, rather than melody or rhythm, plays the dominant sonic role here. By placing such a strong emphasis on texture, Stetson plays on the strengths of the saxophone, especially the bass saxophone, as an instrument. This becomes immediately evident on “Awake on Foreign Shores”, wherein listeners are introduced to the album with an ominously low, overtone-rich wailing that sounds more like the creaking and moaning of giant metal beams ready to collapse in the wind than the stereotypical brass instrument.
The song that best demonstrates Colin Stetson’s masterful use of texture is “Lord I Just can’t Keep from Crying Sometimes”, a Blind Willie Johnson cover. Many artists have attempted to cover Blind Willie Johnson, almost all of them unsuccessfully. Blind Willie’s low, minor key moans and growls are already damn near perfect. Stetson’s cover, however, succeeds in capturing the sorrow, isolation, and dread that the original evokes without simply copying it. Guest vocalist Shara Worden’s airy vocal delivery on the track sounds as though it is being played through an antique phonograph and is backed by Stetson playing a nearly five-minute growling bass note. Swirling and creaking overtones as well as the noise of Stetson’s circular breathing join with the deep fundamental and Worden’s singing to create one of the few successful Blind Willie Johnson Covers ever made.
Stetson trades low groans for a rapid fluttering horn reminiscent of the flight path of a triumphantly deranged butterfly in “A Dream of Water”, another haunting track. Stetson’s frantic saxophone dances crooked circles around Laurie Anderson’s famously soothing spoken word. Phrases like “There were those who laid their bodies down/ There were those who took out knives. There were those who kissed the grey skies” come together with “There were those who lived in the crawlspace/ There were people lighting candles/ There were people going crazy” to create a hauntingly post-apocalyptic vision of war.
Often, albums by solo instrumentalists, if they aren’t complete flops, end up as novelties or at best auditory pornography for enthusiasts of that particular instrument (saxophiles, in this case). A New History Warfare Vol. 2, however, is a powerful and unique album in its own right, creating a sonic experience somewhere between free jazz, doom, and noise music that will reach listeners regardless of whether or not they give a damn about saxophones.
1. Awake on Foreign Shores
3. The Stars in his Head (Dark Lights Remix)
4. All the Days I've Missed You (ILAIJ I)
5. From No Part of Me could I Summon a Voice
6. A Dream of Water
8. Lord I Just can't Keep from Crying Sometimes
9. Clothed in the Skin of the Dead
10. All the Colors Bleached to White (ILAIJ II)
11. Red Horse (Judges ll)
12. The Righteous Wrath of an Honorable Man
13. Fear of the Unknown and the Blazing Sun
14. In Love and in Justice