Colin Stetson ~ New History of Warfare Vol. 1

Originally published at The Silent Ballet.

In the years since his debut, Colin Stetson has gone on to critical acclaim that I would have found hard to anticipate for such a singular style of solo saxophone. He’s collaborated with Laurie Anderson and Bon Iver, with his wife Sarah Neufeld, and in recent years done an extensive amount of soundtrack work, including for Hereditary and Color Out of Space, perhaps fittingly finding a niche in idiosyncratic horror. I moved to Montreal the year after I reviewed this disc, and have since had the opportunity to see him perform many times in a variety of settings, and even had the opportunity to chat briefly with him following a performance at the MAC museum.  But back in 2008 when we were sent this record, my impressions were totally fresh and unencumbered by all that future knowledge.


Colin Stetson’s debut solo record, New History of Warfare Vol. 1, is one of the strangest I’ve heard in a while. A  virtuoso, Stetson has played with many musicians in the jazz scene, and founded his own Transmission Trio. He has also played with such rock and pop luminaries as Tom Waits, Burning Spear, Medeski, Martin & Wood, TV on the Radio, and most recently is touring with indie critical darlings the Arcade Fire. None of this really helps you anticipate what his solo record sounds like, however, but instead demonstrates how versatile a player Stetson really is.

New History of Warfare Vol. 1 really is a solo record, as only Stetson plays on it, with no overdubs, effects, or loops. This is important to note, because after listening to the record, particularly tracks such as “Time is Advancing with Fitful Regularity,” you’ll be left baffled, wondering how one person could have made such dense sounds and how such timbres could be created naturally. Compositionally, I am at times reminded of artists such as Squarepusher or Aphex Twin, due to the repetition and rhythms. It is almost as though Stetson were offering organic interpretations of electronic songs, a la Alarm Will Sound’s rendition of Aphex tunes.

Stetson uses several different wind instruments (alto, bari, and bass saxophones and clarinet), pushing them far past their typical usage, exploring new timbres, colors, rhythms, and recording techniques. The key noise on “Nobu Take,” for example, creates a rhythm along with breath noises, and the sounds of the sax itself sounds downright electronic. The length of the compositions ranges from 37 seconds to over 11 minutes. Each track explores different themes of modes of experimentation, and the album as a whole offers more diversity  than one might expects from a solo saxophonist (a notoriously difficult solo instrument). Press surrounding the record frequently mentions engineer Joel Hamilton, who certainly deserves mention for making the record sound so pristine, unique, and uniform.

Stetson makes use of the overtones created by over-blowing (a free jazz technique) and circular-breathing, which allows him to play steadily for seemingly unnatural amounts of time. Combined with his mastery of his instrument, Stetson has crafted 12 amazingly virtuosic and unique tracks. New History of Warfare Vol. 1 will not please everyone’s sonic pallet, as it can at times be abrasive and dissonant. Yet anyone can appreciate the sheer talent of a player such as Stetson, and those who appreciate experimentation will delight in this album.

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