Colin Stetson: “New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges”

One of those serendipitous music/environment moments this morning. As I was walking down Stamford Hill in a thickish mist, Colin Stetson’s fathomlessly deep saxophone came looming out of my headphones like a foghorn This is one of the first things you hear on “New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges”, a pretty unusual and excellent record that I’ve been meaning to write about for a while.

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One of those serendipitous music/environment moments this morning. As I was walking down Stamford Hill in a thickish mist, Colin Stetson’s fathomlessly deep saxophone came looming out of my headphones like a foghorn This is one of the first things you hear on “New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges”, a pretty unusual and excellent record that I’ve been meaning to write about for a while.



Stetson is, predominantly, a sax player based in Montreal, who has played in the past with an eclectic CVful of musicians including Tom Waits, Bon Iver, Lou Reed, David Bowie, LCD Soundsystem, Arcade Fire and TV On The Radio. On “New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges”, he plays more or less alone, save a couple of vocal interventions from Laurie Anderson and Shara Worden. The backroom is also strong: Shahzad Ismaily , who I last saw playing bass with Will Oldham, co-produces; Efrim Menuck from Godspeed is involved, possibly engineering; and the mix is done by Ben Frost (never been that wild about his solo work, but he’s involved in the excellent new Tim Hecker album, too).


You’ll be hard-pressed, though, to accept much of this is a solo album recorded in real time, without overdubs. I’ve read a little about how Stetson achieved his dense, multi-faceted sound using a bunch of strategically placed microphones, body percussion and what I guess boils down to radical technique; a lot of circular breathing and so on. Nevertheless, these unnerving flurries, these grimy geometric rages, are baffling and astounding in their intricacy.

Plenty of reviewers have mentioned Peter Brotzmann and Evan Parker in relation to Stetson, and while he’s clearly schooled in some seriously avant-garde jazz, “New History Warfare” rarely sounds much, to me at least, like a jazz record. More often, grasping for analogues, I find myself reaching beyond jazz, and beyond saxophones, too.

There are a good few moments here – say, when “From No Part Of Me Could I Summon A Voice” flows into the Anderson-voiced “A Dream Of Water” – which remind me a lot more of systems music, of Philip Glass soundtracks especially. The presence of Anderson increases the general feel of old downtown New York experimentation, but there’s often a melancholy airiness that somehow calls to mind Arthur Russell.

Then there are other tracks, like “Judges”, posssessed of a heaviness and cyclical intensity, that mean I fill my notebook with names like Alexander Tucker, Plastikman (“Red Horses (Judges 2)”, too, has an insistent, brutal pummelling that oddly correlates with techno) and even the Neil Young of “Le Noise”, with its fizzing afterburn to every note.

Maybe a few of you have heard this and can help me out trying to articulate what’s going on here? I’d be really interested, too, if anyone has seen Stetson play solo live: I imagine it’d be some spectacle.

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