Colin Stetson - New History Warfare Volume 3: To See More Light
Ideally every Colin Stetson album should be a live performance where he plays four simultaneous sax parts through the magical power of CIRCULAR BREATHING, while he plays glockenspiel with the toes on his left foot and bangs away at a kick drum with his right. In Stetson's intense live performances, he's taken the annoying trick that Kenny G used to be able to hold off-key notes for an interminable, suicide-inducing length, and turned it into a bizarre, entrancing and imaginative calling card.
When this trick turns up in droves on his newest album, Volume 3 of his New History Warfare series, it works wonders, turning each bar into a cacophony of unspooling, competing parts running the full gamut of sounds he can manage on his single baritone saxophone (if you don't know what it looks like, have a closer look at Lisa Simpson). However, if he ever wants to turn his energetic live displays into Avant Garde genius, he needs to have the gumption to kick his collaborators to the curb and go it completely alone.
The collaborator that shows up too much here is Justin Vernon (AKA Bon Iver). Colin Stetson owes him career-wise sure; his greatest exposure came doing pretty good pop-jazz solos all over Vernon's last album (Bon Iver, Bon Iver) which were totally fucking beneath him, but I'm sure he got paid and noticed so good on him. I don't have anything against Vernon, he's basically Bruce Hornsby for hipsters (I was a big fan of his as a 16 yr old before I was able to dislocate the concepts of authenticity and whining about girls not loving you like an OK Cupid profile-holder), but while Stetson's saxophony embellishes Vernon's work, the latter's dull, anti-septic vocals only hold back Volume 3 from being the great work it could be.
To put this into perspective, the best metaphor I can express for hearing Stetson play is that the listener is on a ship searching for land in choppy sea, in the dark of night. Each blow from his saxophone is like the torch from a lighthouse that shows you the way to land, but the minor, discordant undertone is the torchlight giving you a glimpse of the rocks that will probably break your ship's bow went you hit it. The perfect example of this is the 15 minute title track, 'To See More Light', that flies between on-key and off-key, minor and major, with all parts coming from Stetson's lungs cutting against each other in imperfect contrapuntal motion. Here we have the best use of Vernon's vocals, unintelligible and force-fed through a buzzsaw filter.
At other points however, Vernon tries to do that thing where he sings words with meaning that mean nothing really at all. It pulls the listener totally out of the immersive, metaphorical experience of Stetson's best work with Bon Iver's fluffy poodle soft-pop leanings, while Stetson's impassioned performance cuts the air around him like a razor blade. I'd still recommend listening to this, as well as the much better Live in Concert at ATP from 2011; the title track is great and, given that it takes up around a third of the album's running length, makes the whole thing worth bearing.