by Sean
Please note: MP3s are only kept online for a short time, and if this entry is from more than a couple of weeks ago, the music probably won't be available to download any more.


Western front, 1916

Colin Stetson - "The Stars In His Head (Dark Lights Remix)". On February 22, Constellation Records will release the second album by saxophonist Colin Stetson. It was recorded at Montreal's Hotel 2 Tango in single takes, no overdubs, by Stetson, Shahzad Ismaily and Silver Mt Zion's Efrim Menuck. It features appearances by Laurie Anderson and My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden. It is the most exciting and devastating record that I have heard in seasons; it is a roaring, terrible sadness. Some have heard Stetson's strong debut, New History Warfare Vol 1. Some have seen the faintest flicker of his talent, playing back-up with Arcade Fire or Beirut. But for those who have not yet heard Stetson's new LP, the only true harbinger has been his solo live shows, on tour with Godspeed You Black Emperor, the National, or at Pop Montreal in 2008. Stetson plays saxophones, I wrote. This is kind of like saying whalers ride boats. Stetson plays cascades of notes, soft and overlapping, the stuff of looper pedals and sequencers. Only he's not using looper pedals or sequencers: just his lips and tongue. He circular-breathes and so the songs never stop. He adds clicks and thumps and what sound like drumbeats, only it's just his tongue on the reed. Noises come from nowhere as he takes deep, deep breaths, finishing each piece covered with the sweat of a marathon runner. Later, he plays a bass saxophone, a sax as big as he is, and I think of Fitzcarraldo pulling a steamship over a mountain.

On New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges, Stetson applies the same techniques. Twenty microphones, planted like roses around a room - capturing the ripple of notes, the wails of resonance, the violent clack of fingers on keys and the shriek of Stetson's own voice, sounding through the horn; like Stetson has two hearts, four lungs, can sing two different sorrows at once. While several of the album's songs have vocals - precise, supple poetry by Anderson, a ghostlier presence by Worden - the power is in the push of breath through brass, the dive and heave and buck of Stetson's playing. Writing breathlessly in early January (I had been forbidden from posting a song here), I cited Nat Baldwin, Mark Hollis, Mogwai, Mt Eerie, Alexander Tucker, Phosphorescent's Pride, Born Heller, Alèmu Aga, Richard Youngs, Peter Brötzmann and James Blake. This scarcely gives Stetson his due. Judges sounds like nothing else. It is like being struck by a comet.

Would you like to listen? Due to the vagaries of Stetson's PR campaign, I can offer only this song, a re-imagining of Bell Orchestre's "The Stars In His Head", a song which you may have already heard (I had), on a 2009 Bell Orchestre remix album. Two more tracks, "Judges" and "The righteous wrath of an honorable man" are streaming at NPR and Constellation respectively.

But really you simply need to order this disc, $12 on CD and $17 on vinyl and $8 as an MP3; or go see Stetson and Tim Hecker in New York, Montreal or Quebec City; the Montreal launch is at La Sala Rossa on February 10.

Because Judges sounds like an ember, a hope, a wasteland's light. It is pain and loss and dumb death; groans and summons from the night. It has been years since so dark a thing has touched me. Like Arvo Pärt's Für Alina, like Shostakovich's 8th String Quartet, this is a work for bare heart and dawn.

It is only January but there is an album of the year.

(image source, of the Western Front, 1916, unknown)

Posted by Sean at January 31, 2011 10:37 AM

This album is devasting. I keep trying to write about it but the words don't come out right. Thanks for continually putting up great music.

Posted by herohill at January 31, 2011 10:51 AM

I am really looking forward to hearing this record. I first heard Stetson when he opened for Bell Orchestre in 2009. In a beautiful church, Stetson rumbled and squawked and thundered. It left us quaking in the pews.

Posted by rgsc at January 31, 2011 12:07 PM

I don't think you've written this forcefully (at least on STG) about a new sound in a long, long time, and even if there wasn't a track to listen or links to follow I'd probably be buying Judges simply due to the urgency of this post.

Immense thanks.

Posted by Ryan at January 31, 2011 12:52 PM

"Righteous wrath" is an unutterably excellent track.

Posted by Orlando at January 31, 2011 7:34 PM

Extraordinary music, classic STG posting. Thanks for both

Posted by J at February 1, 2011 10:58 PM

Wow! Wow! WOW!

Posted by Jon B at February 2, 2011 12:31 AM

Yeah, love the way you wrote about this. Such urgency.

Posted by Kevin at February 3, 2011 11:02 AM

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about the authors
Sean Michaels is the founder of Said the Gramophone. He is a writer, critic and author of the theremin novel Us Conductors. Follow him on Twitter or reach him by email here. Click here to browse his posts.

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