Review: “New History Warfare: Vol. 3” by Colin Stetson

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In acoustic music, few artists tread as truly “solo” a path as Colin Stetson. The sheer breadth and extent of the timbral possibilities available to most instrumentalists is often dissatisfying or limited, while singers and pianists inevitably fall into the confines of folk or classical traditions. Recorded and electronic music has enabled the lone musician to produce entire universes on his or her own, and simulate polyphony in a box – but Colin Stetson falls into neither of these categories. Although his instrument does place him into an elderly jazz tradition already filled with skilled circular breathers (e.g. Roland Kirk), and his modus operandi similarly placing him into an odd avant-garde contingent of purely solo saxophone players (Anthony Braxton, John Butcher, Kaoru Abe), Stetson’s multifaceted approach is still exploring and inventing like no other instrumentalist working today. His music has only one notable ancestor – the solo clarinet pieces of minimalist composer, Gamelan Son of Lion member and fellow American, Daniel Goode – and even then, Colin Stetson has taken Goode’s ability to produce seemingly polyphonic music with a monophonic instrument and extrapolated beyond recognition. And that’s what’s always most stirring about Colin Stetson; he’s quite literally taken an instrument always thought of as monophonic and proven it’s polyphonic capabilities. He’s turned the musically monochrome into Technicolor.

Having recorded and toured with the likes of TV on the Radio, the Arcade Fire and Bon Iver, Colin Stetson has been massively prolific as an increasingly available “gun for hire”. Even so, the work under his own name has always felt utterly distinct from his session recordings, that is until the final chapter of his New History Warfare trilogy (subtitled To See More Light) which features quite surprisingly and regularly the vocal contributions of Justin Vernon from Bon Iver. Admittedly not the most feeble and flaccid of stadium folkers, Bon Iver still fundamentally inhabits a universe of chart-topping pop strumming a million miles from Colin Stetson’s ungodly and often stark solo sax dirges. The chorus of harmonizing Bon Ivers on opening prelude And In Truth does surely test the mettle of those hungry for Stetson’s sax pyrotechnics, with the now familiar flurry of stolen notes’ slow crescendo underpinning a multi-tracked Vernon in a coherent track that could even sit on one of the singer’s own albums. As with its two predecessors, it’s paramount to remind oneself throughout this recording exactly how it was made, and precisely what it is you’re listening to. While volumes one and two did include guest vocal contributions, intensively precise production and the odd slice of traditional Americana, these elements appeared in varying degrees on a track-by-track basis. To See More Light sees these ingredients coalesce into a whole more successfully than either the previous New History Warfares.

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Stetson’s taste in music revealed in several different online features last year was unsurprisingly varied, but somehow revealed some of the mystery behind how such a unique sound came into being. The black metal wall of sound that characterizes Liturgy can be heard in Stetson’s wailing vocalizations, muted and blurred by the reed between his lips, morphed into the vague imprint of a melody much like Liturgy’s impenetrable terror metal. Conversely, Glenn Gould’s utter virtuosity and precision was purported as an influence, and is equally mirrored in the breathtaking rapid-fire finger work of Stetson. In fact, the influence of Gould as a recording artist may be one of the most key over Stetson, as Gould’s own insistence on actively pursuing the inclusion of ambient sounds from within the recording studio (be they the soft resting and tapping of his fingers on the keys or his insistent and unbreakable habit of whistling and singing while playing) is one of the keystones of his unparalleled sound. Almost archetypal Stetson tunes like High Above the Grey Green Sea or Among the Sef gain so much from the inclusion of the incidental sounds of Stetson’s sax playing. His breathing adds to the intense intimacy of his compositions, bringing to life the exasperating physicality of his playing. The rustling and tapping of his fingers across the keys further evidence the virtuosity at stake here, and introduce the unsettling and chaotic sounds going on around the instrument – with all the menacing and restless frenzied patter of a Cuban crab invasion.

Stetson recently discussed the supposed narrative of the New History Warfare trilogy in an interview at Consequence of Sound, with the composer alleging a “very specific narrative”, with Vol. 1 supposedly covering the story of “people who have been living at sea for generations”, while 2 saw the return of those people to land. He expanded on this, the finale, as being something of an epic – a “war story”. This narrative is still as much of a mystery as ever, having little real bearing on the music, but even just the idea of his music having a narrative at all, feels much more believable than ever before. Stetson’s teased the most out of his aptitude for accessible compositions in an inaccessible context, and To See More Light puts these ideas into thrillingly effective order. Justin Vernon’s singing characterises the players in Stetson’s tale, with Vernon even evoking the murderous spirit of Tom Waits in his most glass-gargling alter ego (another ex-colleague of Stetson’s), something that the normally falsetto-pedalling Bon Iver singer achieves with convincing gusto.

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Awash with overwhelming intensity, the crowning moment of To See More Light is the title track. Over the course of a quarter of an hour, Stetson paints a full scale Boschian triptych in real time. Opening with characteristic arpeggios, Stetson unveils line after line of melody, eventually singing through his sax, giving the illusion that he and he instrument are intertwined irrevocably, as if the man himself is trapped inside the belly of a brass beast. This gives way to a passage containing a mind-melting simulation of tape denigration on Stetson’s own sax lines, before ultimately emerging into a final flurry of now-major key sax blasts, spectacularly concluding the epic hymnal in a manner befitting any of his Constellation label mates chasing that tear jerking post-rock finale.

The saxophonist himself has made it clear just how much his physical ability has progressed since starting the New History Warfare project, and while his capabilities have technically reached a point previously unheard, it’s the fleshing out of his compositional ability that gives this album its well-deserved sense of sheer ambition and intensity. The continued adroitness and dexterity of Stetson may be what drew us in, but it’s the deep Wagnerian melodrama and vivid imagery of his music that entrances for an hour. To See More Light completes an almost immeasurable musical statement, with Stetson grasping on to everything under threat in modern music. Firstly he’s composing and virtuosic in a classically erudite manner – something that not even his collaborators can claim. Most vitally though, it’s the proximity and veracity of that sound which gives this music its strength. While the studio is normally a place for musicians to escape the pains that reality’s sometimes detrimental sounds capes can have on their music, this was recorded to sound true. With digitisation taking listeners that one step further removed from the music, Stetson’s essentially injecting the reality thus lost at his end of the proceedings, and the effect is exhilarating for both him and us. Following up a trilogy of this magnitude is something that could overcome even the boldest of musicians, but Stetson’s already treading deep in the unknown, and the way things seem, this is only the leading edge.

Verdict: ★★★★★

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