Colin Stetson

New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges

(Constellation; 2011)

By Joel Elliott | 21 March 2011

The first time we hear the voice of Laurie Anderson on Colin Stetson’s massive solo saxophone record it’s at the end of “Judges”: “What war was this? What town could this be?” So it is we’re thrown into New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges. Like Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf, it seems to document the time after some unknown, catastrophic violence. Anderson’s laconic (and surprisingly effective) poetry re-appears on “A Dream of Water,” where she seems to float over the scene, observing everything with haunting precision (and, despite the title, little judgement): “There were those who brought out knives/ There were those who kissed the grey skies / There were people lighting candles / There were those who knew only the sound of their own voice / What war was this?”

It was almost inevitable that Efrim Menuck (Godspeed You! Black Emperor/A Silver Mt. Zion) got behind the boards here. Montreal—and Constellation records in particular—seems to invite this kind of politicization of often instrumental and highly personal experimental music. Think what you want about the music behind Yanqui U.X.O. (2002), but the idea that instrumental music could be implicitly political, re-contextualized as a soundtrack to colossal destruction and corporate hegemony, is a perspective I feel is unfairly lost in most discussions of contemporary music. With New History Warfare, the primary innovation isn’t even the successful integration of spoken word—although considering how long that technique has been the bane of jazz’s existence, that itself is pretty remarkable—but something that simultaneously speaks to the formal limitations of free improvisation and the current social and political climate, even within the purely instrumental tracks.

Those are two massive tasks, but really, they can’t be separated. In 1968, Peter Brotzmann’s octet released Machine Gun, one of the initial cornerstones of the European brand of free improv that would develop over the ensuing decades (and still one of the most gum-bleeding, intense sessions put to tape). Two years later, Jimi Hendrix coined a track by the same name with his Band of Gypsys, an overt protest against the Vietnam War. New History Warfare feels like a summation of both of those trends: the fringes of jazz/avant-garde and rock (and yes, I think this album can be talked about in relation to rock, not to mention minimalism and contemporary compositional music), under the shared rubric of protest against organized violence.

And yet Stetson goes beyond the straightforward equation of sonic intensity=the chaos of war to suggest something far more human: within its unrelenting energy is loneliness, intimacy even. It sounds like something really powerful looking in on itself and discovering its own fragility. Sure, Stetson’s version of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying,” with Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond on vocals, betrays the world-weary melancholy behind the album in broad strokes, but that doesn’t make it any less brilliant. Especially since Stetson manages to perfectly create the musical equivalent of a massive, ancient body moaning and sighing its last breath.

Most reviewers seem to discuss this record in terms of Stetson’s physical skill, and granted his circular breathing is something unworldly. But it’s really about scale. Specifically, it’s about amplification: Stetson placed around two dozen mics in various places inside and outside of his instrument, which makes the whole thing sound like the work of six instruments at once, only about half of which sound like actual saxophones. Mics around the mouthpiece and keys make the slightest hum through the reed sound like a jet engine and the clacking of keys sound like the stampede of horses on the cover.

Solo improv records have always involved some degree of vulnerability and endurance, but New History Warfare adds something confrontational to the mix. Gone are the usual tangents and rhythmic looseness; Stetson takes the compositional integrity of Anthony Braxton to its logical extreme, creating a ceaseless flow of maximalist/minimalist energy. The low end pulses which constantly provide an undercurrent to the higher notes make something even as fragile and subtle as “The Stars in His Head” flow with the kind of fullness usually reserved for those with access to loop pedals. And yet the noticeable difference between this and a series of overdubs lies in the way his actual notes seem to escape out the cracks of the “incidental” noises of the instrument. I use the word in quotes because Stetson seems to be the first sax player to finally make previously unintended by-products of the instrument as substantial as the actual notes. Sure, reed-busting squeals have been in vogue since Albert Ayler started consciously using them in the ’60s, but I can’t think of anything else like “Home,” where the almost drum-kick percussion of the bass sax and the gorgeous wordless hums that burst around the sides of the reed become the meat of the track, and the actual notes in between the fringes.

For all that, New History Warfare has enough range that it seems to have opened up a whole new fanbase that might otherwise have no interest in avant-garde music. You can almost hear Stetson’s work with TV on the Radio in the polyphonic threads that run through “The Righteous Wrath of an Honorable Man,” at least if you ignore the demented tempo changes. And “Red Horse (Judges II)” is downright fun, a Coil-esque industrial stomp with constantly shifting percussive reverb and tortured, distorted screams that somehow sound borderline articulate, even with Stetson presumably keeping his mouth around the horn the whole time.

What makes the album broader in its scope than the average blowing session, even beyond the titles and poetry strewn throughout, is observing the world from within and without. Everyone handles calamity differently; the most powerful thing about that Haneke film was its refusal to settle the question of whether or not people respond with barbarity or humanity under duress, when the answer is infinitely both. Perhaps the most impressive track here is “From No Part of Me Could I Summon a Voice,” where Stetson manages to create the same full, orchestral sounds but without the deep bass sax tones that he usually employs, instead filling a vast space with reverberating soprano arpeggios. Here, Stetson is really an army of one, a single voice haunted by a thousand others. Some carry knives and some light candles. Everyone ultimately only knows his or her own voice, which is always only one voice, but in this common condition, also that of everyone else.