26 Apr, 2013

Colin Stetson – “New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light”

Colin StetsonColin Stetson is a multi-reed musician from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Stetson dabbles with clarinet, bass clarinet, French horn, flute, and cornet, but mostly known for his use of the bass saxophone. Stetson is a master of his instrument that works mainly in the genre of avant-garde jazz. With such a small audience for free form and experimental music, Colin has found the support of bigger named rock superstars to put him in the public eye of critics and music lovers alike. Before Stetson began to record his solo material he started off as a studio musician. You can find his sultry brass stylings on the works of artists such as David Byrne, LCD Soundsystem, The National, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, just to name a few. From then on he toured as a sideman musician on tours supporting groundbreaking albums such as Neon Bible and The Suburbs by Arcade Fire, Metals by Feist, Dear Science by TV on the Radio, as well as Alice and Blood Money by Tom Waits. But where Stetson really began to shine through is on his recording and performing contribution on Bon Iver’s multi-Grammy Award winning album Bon Iver. Stetson became very close friends with Justin Vernon, playing a slew of reed instruments on every single appearance made by the band, including notable TV performances.

Once Colin had his foot in the door, he turned heads of critics and fans alike with his 2011 release New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges. The album is a combination between free jazz and electronic/drone influenced bass sax playing with occasional guest vocal features. The most intriguing aspect of this album is the recording process. Each of the fourteen pieces is recorded in one take with 10+ microphones. To the untrained ear, these songs sound just like strange electronic pieces with squawking saxophone on top. Colin Stetson does all of the melodic, bass, and percussive elements simultaneously with his mastery of circular breathing. What’s most impressive is that Stetson can play these long-winded intricate melodies and rhythms for almost six minutes without taking his mouth off the reed.

Now in 2013 Colin Stetson releases the third album in this series New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light. On the first track Colin’s saxophone melody crescendos into a larger-than-life harmony by none other than Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. The saxophone and vocals hit you like a chilly gust of wind early in the morning. The familiarity of the Vernon’s bearded falsetto makes the album much more accessible right off the bat. But as soon as the sweet voices climax and conclude this prelude, the bass sax reappears in “Hunted”, a fast and flustered melody that is melancholy but also very angry. Throughout the album Stetson’s vocal-like melodies soar over the frantic arpeggios crate a beautiful musical cacophony. What is also interesting, is that the listener can easily pick up the rhythmic clicking and clacking of the sax’s buttons as well as the deep inhales of Colin’s circular breathing. “Brute” is one of most aggressive tracks on the album. Now, a harsh lo-fi distortion has been put on the bass sax with some of the most guttural screeches and drones that a person could make on a reed instrument. Half way through, a grizzly howl comes from the back caverns of this sound. These cookie-monster vocals, surprisingly enough, also come from the indie-folk sweetheart Justin Vernon. But where this album really hits its stride is the fifteen-minute epic “To See More Light”. The piece starts off with short, stabbing notes with delay and massive amounts of cavernous reverb. The song then builds with massive amounts of tension-building arpeggios and enough bass to fill the Grand Canyon. The song then finishes with a giant half-time start-and-stop rhythm that paint the picture of a 10-story mammoth stomping and bellowing shaking the whole earth.

Even though avant-garde may be a frightening genre to some, Colin Stetson’s newest release still may be worth the listen. If screaming and squawking isn’t your cup of tea, softer moments featuring Justin Vernon, such as “What are They Doing in Heaven Tonight?” could please any Bon Iver fan. But, who knows, more melodic and accessible solo tracks such as “This Bed of Shattered Bone” may tickle your fancy. Regardless, New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light will be remembered as an innovation of avant-garde not only stylistically but also technically. The use of a sole reed instrument to create rhythm, melody, and bass all at the same time is a technique so unique that makes Colin Stetson one of a kind. For any music lover, Colin Stetson’s newest LP is unique, beautiful, aggressive, melancholic, but all around unconventionally accessible.

Review by James Calvet.

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