|Let’s be clear from the (bungee) jump: Colin Stetson’s got chops. On “Judges,” the second song from New History Warfare, Vol. 2, baritone-sax arpeggios whip around the headphones as muted clicks keep time in the right ear. Above the Tilt-a-Whirl, a distorted moan gouges at the eardrum. “Where am I?” and “did I just black out?” are both appropriate questions.|
The record was almost completely produced in single takes with 24 microphones capturing Stetson’s solo saxophone performances without loops or samples. The clicks are Stetson slapping at the keys on his mammoth baritone sax. The moans and screams are Stetson vocalizing into the horn while circular breathing. While his attack is unrelenting, he’s aware of the threshold across which a listener would fatigue. It’s at these moments on the album that he offers a balm, like the stately major tones of “All the Days I’ve Missed” or the laconic choir interlude of “All the Colors Bleached to White.”
Stetson’s approach to the instrument is nothing short of revolutionary. Saxophones do not drone, but he lays down drones for a full five minutes on the haunting “Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying Sometimes,” featuring My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden, the whispers of his circular breathing scraping in the right ear.
Stetson’s chops were on full display at his recent gig at the Iron Horse Music Hall, but it was his near masochistic struggle with the saxophone that mesmerized the crowd. After “Red Horse (Judges II),” a syncopated and sinister knockout from New History that featured Stetson clacking his tongue into a mic between precious breaths, Stetson shook out his hands and cracked his neck, his face Macintosh red. “Ouch,” he said. “That one always gets me. I don’t know why.” A rye joke, but the audience might have been too stunned to laugh.
Technical feats aside, New History Warfare Vol. 2 is also a brilliantly imagined work of speculative fiction. On tracks like “A Dream of Water,” Laurie Anderson delivers a spooky spoken-word performance over Stetson’s trilling, each line beginning with “There were those who . . .” and adding “What war was that? What town could this be?” Anderson’s spoken word and Stetson’s South-Saturn-Delta horn create a decimated landscape that characters seem to be seeing for the first time after a traumatic, forced exile. It’s William Carlos Williams’ “Spring and All,” Jimi Hendrix’s First Rays of the New Rising Sun, or Vonnegut’s Dresden in Slaughterhouse Five.