New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges
As New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges amply demonstrates, Colin Stetson is a saxophone force to be wreckoned with. An uncommonly robust player who's a member of both Belle Orchestre and Sway Machinery, the Montréal-based Stetson brings his mastery of circular breathing technique and reed vocalisations to the remarkable forty-five-minute recording, a fourteen-track opus of polyphonic solo playing and vocal settings that follows upon 2008's debut solo outing New History Warfare Vol. 1.
The cycling patterns that regularly animate the new album's tracks call to mind the parts played by Philip Glass's woodwind player Richard Peck on Dance and in the long instrumental sections of Einstein On the Beach, with one key difference: while the ostinato cells in Glass's music are unvarying, Stetson constantly changes his by modifying his attack as he's playing. As a result, the melodic cell itself remains intact but its character and definition undergo constant change, with Stetson sometimes braying aggressively and at other times voicing quieter melodic lines.
The listener's interest in the recording never flags, in part because Stetson constantly changes things up, alternating throughout between instrumental and vocal pieces. Having Laurie Anderson's signature voice and Shara Worden's powerful vocalizing (especially on the traditional “Lord I Just Can't Keep From Crying Sometimes”) on board makes a huge difference too (Stetson even appears to sit out during the too-brief interlude “All The Colors Bleached to White (ILAIJ II),” which backs Anderson's speaking voice with a choir). Stetson's focus is exclusively on saxophone—alto, tenor and bass saxophones—except on one track, the interlude “All the Days I've Missed You (ILAIJ I),” where French horn is added to his arsenal.
The album begins with a repeated blast of foghorn-like intensity with “Awake on Foreign Shores,” the recording setup so exposing Steson's presence that his breaths are as audible as the vocal-like roar coming through the bass saxophone. The effect re-appears during the later “Red Horse (Judges ll)” when his vocal wail again transmits itself through the instrument. In less recognizable form, Anderson's wordless voice appears alongside his during “Judges,” almost like a ghostly, even primal presence shadowing the winding paths traced so insistently by the saxophone. Her familiar speaking voice is heard at the start of Stetson's arrangement of Belle Orchestre's “The Stars in His Head (Dark Lights Remix),” with his flickering patterns weaving an anguished song that grows ever more turbulent and fraught with distrubance as it continues, careening in the upper register as a wail and pulsating down below in a guttural croak. Her delivery feels sped-up and hence more agitated during “A Dream of Water,” as if she's trying to keep pace with the rapid spiraling patterns the saxophonist plays with such intensity. The dirge-like plod of “Home” serves as a natural scene-setter for the blues-folk lamentation “Lord I Just Can't Keep From Crying Sometimes,” brought to vivid life by Worden's desperate vocal and the low-end warble of Stetson's drone. The two vocalists appear in only one track together but the one on which they do, “Fear of the Unknown and the Blazing Sun,” proves to be memorable for being so haunting.What helps make New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges stand out is that its music was laid down live in single takes at Montréal's Hotel2Tango studio, with no overdubs or looping and with over twenty mics positioned throughout the room. That gives the music on this highly original and captivating recording a visceral punch that a conventionally album painstakingly assembled over weeks in the studio often lacks.