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Album review: Colin Stetson's 'New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges'

February 21, 2011 |  6:19 pm

Colinstetson When indie stars crave a bit of evocative skronk for their songs, they call Colin Stetson. The horn virtuoso (best known for bass saxophone, but also fluent on various other wind instruments) has lent his iconoclastic talents to performances by the likes of Bon Iver, Feist, Tom Waits, TV on the Radio, LCD Soundsystem, the National, and is a touring member of recent Grammy champions the Arcade Fire. On Stetson’s second solo album, "New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges," however, the sounds he creates prove hardly as NPR-friendly as his colleagues’.

Instead, Stetson creates challenging sheets of drone and noise that suggest New York avant-gardists Borbetomagus and John Zorn, free-jazz icons Ornette Coleman and Peter Brötzmann, and the more out-there John Coltrane. What amazes is how Stetson blends layered composition with spontaneity: Other than occasional vocals from Laurie Anderson and My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden, the primarily instrumental tracks were captured in one take, imbuing them with vivid immediacy.

At times, Stetson evokes contemporary classical -- "Clothed in the Skin of the Dead" entrances with minimalist repetition -- or touches on contemporary electronica, like the akimbo, Flying Lotus-style rhythms underpinning "Judges," but he might be most effective when somewhat accessible. "Lord I just can’t keep from crying sometimes" pairs Worden’s torchy wail with a grinding ambient soundscape to forge a sublime, spooky art-blues. Indeed, the album’s impenetrable surfaces grow haunting after numerous listens: Stetson may never garner mainstream recognition like his Arcade Fire pals, but he proves undeniably compelling in his uncompromising musicality.

-- Matt Diehl

Colin Stetson
"New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges"
Three stars (Out of four)