(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

CD review - Colin Stetson, New History Warfare, Vol 2 Judges (2011)

New History Warfare, Volume 2 Judges, due out February 22, is the follow up to Colin Stetson's first album, New History Warfare, Volume 1. Stetson continues his work in experimental art music which is heavily influenced by minimalist composers like Phillip Glass.

Staccato chops of sound, percolating and buzzing, form the basis of these pieces. The horns and vocalizations sound heavily processed, resonating with feedback or picking up odd echoes. This sets a mood across the album -- a touch of anxious tension and hidden threat. Despite this, it's a compelling listen and the song flow pulls the listener in.

Woodwind and horn player Colin Stetson has toured and recorded with diverse artists from Arcade Fire to Laurie Anderson to Tom Waits. His background is in jazz, but he's developed a unique sound based on percussive playing, circular breathing, and odd vocalizations. Like other iconoclast players (Adrian Belew, Steve Vai, Ornette Coleman), his original sound has made him a valuable addition to many other artists' music.

While most of New History Warfare, Volume 2 Judges is Stetson alone, he does bring in Laurie Anderson and Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) to add their vocal talents. What's surprising, though, is that most of the album is recorded with no overdubs or looping. So, the intense bubbling electronic sounds of Judges, with its mangled and distorted bass sound, is all Stetson.

Similarly, The Stars in His Head (Dark Lights Remix) sounds like a droning electronic version of the Velvet Underground, with the sax covering the part of John Cale's viola. The feedback throb builds a disturbed feel, full of nervous energy. The balance of beat and squealing lines create a call and response. It's amazing to imagine Stetson creating all of that in a single take.

Each song that Laurie Anderson contributes to sounds like her solo work. Her voice, phrasing, and mood are so much her own and Stetson sounds like he's augmenting her work rather than vice versa. Fear of the Unknown and the Blazing Sun is the best of these:
Of all the wires, It was the wires That were the wires for empathy That we loved beyond all the others.
The odd percussion sounds looped and mixes well with the vocalized horn work.

Stetson's deconstruction of the gospel blues classic, Lord I Just Can't Keep From Cryin', Sometimes is another strong track. Shara Worden's vocals are effectively a capella, with just an occasional scratch of rhythm and an ominous didgeridoo hum lurking underneath. The creepy combination of the dirgelike singing and the threatening bass fill the track with such dread. It's a powerful track.

While a modulated arpeggio approach dominates New History Warfare, Volume 2 Judges, sounding superficially like Phillip Glass's minimalist work, I find this music much richer and more interesting. A strong aged tequila would be the right match: spicy, strong, and unmistakable.

(Sample: The Righteous Wrath of an Honorable Man)

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