Sunday, February 13, 2011

"We're Not Above Reviewing Leaks": Colin Stetson - New History Warfare vol. 2: Judges

If there is any justice in the world of music criticism, a good deal of the coming months' digital ink is going to be spent covering saxophonist Colin Stetson and his new album New History Warfare vol. 2: Judges. Of the reviews that will be written, many of them will, undoubtedly, hone in on the album's apocalyptic themes, others will talk about his impressive resume (he's played with Tom Waits!, The Arcade Fire!, Lou Reed! etc...), and everyone (and I mean everyone), will marvel at the dude's chops. While all of these are impressive in their own right, I find myself intrigued by another facet of Judges. Before I go on, let me provide some context. In a recent interview with Pitchfork's Ryan Dombal, Stetson talked about how, in lieu of using loops or effects in his recording, he relied on creative microphone placement to achieve the fantastically layered, rich sounds that populate his album:

"I didn't want to just put up a stereo mic in a room and try to get some two-dimensional snapshot of an instrument. The set-up allowed us to capture it in three dimensions so we could then spread out and reshuffle and make our own surreal representation of that performance. There are mics inside the instrument, a contact mic on my throat, and countless mics clustered around the air of the horn and throughout the room. I wanted to make something that was specific to the medium of recording. I want to make albums that are like a Murakami novel or a Terrence Malick film-- something that explicitly states its own world." (Dombal)

Now, in addition to referencing one of my favorite novelists and one of my favorite filmmakers, what intrigues me about Stetson's approach as described in the above quote is his use and definition of space. Stetson's own description of the process as being captured in three-dimensions is compelling, but almost doesn't do justice to the scheme. My own initial thoughts on how to describe this process found me comparing the approach to the creation of bullet-time for The Matrix. But even that doesn't seem to convey the complexity of how this sound is being produced. What I've settled on, then, is that Stetson's album is recorded in four dimensions. Not only is his album "stating its own world," but it is creating a new form of sonic space that accounts for both the placement of sounds in a room, as well as the necessary time for sound to travel to those various microphones. We hear sax moans echoing through the room and more present, immediate growls from the musicians throat fighting for space and the imperceptible gap between each sound's creation. The resulting sound is that of time and space piling on top of each other, of the artist-subject spliced into disparate sounds and forms only to be reassembled into a single performance.

The end result is an utterly engaging and powerful sonic document. Stetson's got chops, and they show. He's also got big ideas, which also show. The sax lines, vocal hums, and pad-slap percussion of "Home," slide into and through each other to produce a haunting and surreal recording. Elsewhere, Stetson's saxophone rumbles, flits, dances, dredges, and moans. Sporadically throughout the album, his performances are complemented by haunting narration--both spoken (Laurie Anderson!) and sung (Shara Worden!)--telling a vague story about end-times. While these moments are equally haunting and surreal, and by no means detract from the album, I'm fairly certain that Stetson's vision and skill would have been enough to carry this collection of songs. Still, the narrative is a nice touch and adds some extra mystery to an already engaging piece of music.


You can pre-order the album from Constellation Records It comes out on 2/22/11.

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