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

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Recording review: Colin Stetson, New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light (2013)

Sonic illusions show how far the sax can go

Synthesizer washes, keyboard loops, and throbbing electronic bass – it’s all a sonic illusion. While Colin Stetson’s new album might sound like an electro-interpretation of contemporary minimalism, there are no effects added beyond equalization and saturation. Stetson sculpts his bass saxophone into avant-garde mutations using a host of free-jazz techniques, like multiphonics and vocalization, combined with circular breathing, percussive valve work, and microphone manipulation. Producer Ben Frost augments Stetson’s remarkable playing to create the sounds of strings, bass guitars, and grinding metallic tones.

New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light is the third in series of New History Warfare albums. Spaced out over several years, each volume has offered richer technical and sonic refinements since the first release in 2007. New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges (2011) was a major critical success and this release builds on its strengths, featuring features longer tracks and greater physical demands on Stetson. Tempering Phillip Glass style minimalism with raw, challenging textures may seem like a recipe for “difficult listening music,” but the music feels like a natural blend that could be compared to progressive electronica. Even as he focuses on virtuoso performance, it’s never self-indulgent. Performance artist Laurie Anderson provided “vocal presence” on Judges along with Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond). This time, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver steps in to take on the small set of vocals and his style is very different from Anderson or Worden. I appreciate how Stetson has used these more familiar artists to expand his vision. In a reversal of roles, he teases out their specific characters for this album. Normally, he’s in demand for their projects because of his unique voice. Aside from collaborating with performers like Anderson and Vernon’s Bon Iver, Stetson has been a touring and studio wildcard for other artists like Tom Waits, Arcade Fire and Feist.

Any track on the album could serve as a good example of Stetson’s chameleon-like playing. On “Hunted”, for instance, his sax is closer to a deconstructed industrial sound than what the instrument is normally known for. It’s raw and ragged, throbbing with tension. A minimalist flutter superimposes percussive bass notes over the main register, building rhythmic and tonal complexity. Richly evocative, his raspy vocalizations add the tortured yowl of a big cat on the prowl. Through the course of the song, Frost’s production dynamically adjusts the proximity between distant searching and close-in threat. The arrangement is so thickly layered that it’s almost inconceivable that this performance is free of instrumental overdubs or multiple players.

The awe-inspiring centerpiece of the album is the epic title track, “To See More Light”. The 15 minute sojourn begins with a sparse, exploratory feel. For once, Stetson tosses out simple saxophone stabs without mutating their texture. A hollow echo suggests a large space to be mapped out and understood. The song becomes more purposeful and complex as his line transforms into a thoughtful, repetitive series. Searching and building, he sets a trance groove. His sax bubbles and vibrates, then twists back on itself. The tempo pulses with speedy sprints and eddies of reflection. A moaning undertone and brittle surface create an anxious sense of dread. Gathering murky energy, it resolves into a sonic juggernaut on the move. The quivering pattern from before is completely subsumed by shifting synthesizer-like tones and a heavy percussive plodding. As if the beginning explorations inevitably led to this marching darkness, the music recalls Robert Oppenheimer’s thoughts at the Trinity nuclear test, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Stetson lets the resonant vibration build and break down the track into unformed chaos. The title may aspire to growth, but the narrative arc offers a cautionary perspective. It’s followed by a cover of Washington Phillips’ gospel hymn, “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?”, which offers a moment of repose, much like how the Beatles used their lullaby “Good Night” to soothe after “Revolution 9”. Vernon’s overdubbed vocals offer African chorale harmonies. It’s almost acapella, with the sax providing a mere flickering flame of accompaniment.

Isolation is a recurring theme throughout the New History Warfare series. Stetson’s anguished tones are tap into a well of disconnection and need. Those emotions are rawer on To See More Light, making it a compelling collection that transcends the impressive playing and recording techniques.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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