Tag Archives: colin stetson

Instrumentally Yours: The Saxophone

Damn, do I love me some saxophone. I keep trying to put my finger on what it is that draws me to it such readily, and the only thing that I can come up with it that it sounds more ‘alive’ than any of the instruments in standard rock, as it’s driven by breath – comin’ from the very inside of a human being rather than stemming from the extremities. As flowery as that sounds, it means that no two notes are really the same, as the smallest change can make the timbre sound totally different and you can really hear the effort welling up behind the note, whether it be a quiet toot or a wailing peel.

Used at the low end, it usually has a lot more texture and character to it than just a pluck of the string . There’s a little wildness around the edges as it blasts the low notes into your gut; a feeling that you could just fall right into the gaping hole the sound creates. A little goes a long way. Simon & Garfunkel’s “Why Don’t You Write Me?” doesn’t use it to replace the bass entirely, but does have an irresistible baritone sax part at the break, honking away at either side of your ears and sort of relishing in the deep tones by playing mostly the same note but with a funky rhythm. On his recent album, The Next Day, David Bowie’s opens “Dirty Boys” with the sleaziest, slinkiest bari sax line, barely able to keep itself above board through the verses of the song as Bowie recounts his times of debauchery with the lads. Near the end, it begrudgingly offers up a solo as it crawls towards the finish, no doubt hungover and pissed off and eager to get on with the next night’s activities.

As a lead instrument, it can open up a crazy amount, as you can go through all kinds of timbrel changes even around just the same notes, twisting your mouth or playing with your breath. It’s more akin to singing in that way, as it feels varied and articulate at points. I’d be lying if I said that my adoration of Van der Graaf Generator did not have a major influence on my selection of this subject. Using the sax as their main lead instrument, they’re caught right in the middle of wresting it from the hands of jazz circa 1970. In “Killer”, David Jackson lays down the main riff of the song alongide the organ (playing two saxes simultaneously, might I add), but quickly jumps at the chance to squonk and scronk away atonally – very much echoing the sounds of jazz but in the name of the energy and aggression of rock. The movement from order to chaos exhibited on the sax is awesome – the note becomes completely irrelevant and inaudible as he channels rage into the reed until settling back down at the return of the verse.

Pop music is also unable to resist the dalliances of that sweet sweet horn – it’s something I’m hearing more and more of and I’m getting excited about it. Lady Gaga uses a sax solo for the break in “The Edge of Glory” on Born This Way, and it creates an interesting contrast – hearing that sax wail about against Gaga’s usual bank of synths and drum machine seems like it would make the natural sounds of the sax seem out of place, but it actually fits in better than you’d think. The boisterous sound of sax actually fits in with the carefully tweaked synths that surround it – it has that thickness and character than we want out of synths nowadays, as we’ve long rocketed past the tinny sounds of the Casio. The synthesizer is supposed to sound like a synthesizer, not anything else. As such, it hangs quite nicely as another varied tone in the bunch – just as complex, timbre-wise as anything else in the bunch and  ripping notes to shreds left and right.

And then there’s “Baker Street”. I don’t think I could possibly come up with enough superlatives to describe the sax riff alone. After several listens, I’ve discovered that it actually has verses and a guitar solo, and they’re actually pretty good. But the sax. It plays that eight-bar riff over and over and gives it a different flavour every time – a little more gusto, a little micro-second longer note. It’s transcendent. Just listen.

And putting it all together is Colin Stetson. Often Arcade Fire’s hired gun, Stetson has put out three solo albums now playing only bass saxophone and with no overdubs. He instead has many, many microphones placed all over the instrument to capture every nuance of every little sound he can get it to make. Here’s “Judges” (and here, Colin breaks it all down). He’s playing low, high, the percussive aspect of slapping the keys and using some of his breath before he even gets to the freakin’ sax, which he needs a hell of a lot of to power the beast that is the bass sax. It sounds primal and visceral and otherworldly. The same instrument provides so many different facets at the same time, it’s dizzying. Provided, Stetson has an insane talent, but I really didn’t even know it was possible to do that and have each portion of it sounds satisfying as if each part were given to a different person.

Sax is on the rise, and I couldn’t be happier. Anytime I can turn on the radio and hear some really brassy woodwindy gusto, I’m super pleased. Possibly the reason I can watch this for hours (also because dude’s got serious moves):

P.S. I know it’s a meme – I could not find a video that looped the actual footage of the dude moving that didn’t have dumb text all over it. So I present the whole song because it owns anyhow.

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#20: New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light – Colin Stetson

(Constellation, 2013)

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(Image from inyourspeakers.com)

Nothing beats the roar of an instrument giving a complete solo performance. No lattice to string notes between, no safety nets to pad the sound – the noise just curls and undulates out in space. At least it would if Colin Stetson said it was okay. Though there are a few extended drone-like passages, Stetson uses flurries of clustered notes in order to build his houses of horror and redemption. Not to mention the incessant clack of the keys and occasional deep-throated scream which has no tongue to articulate it.

Now on the third album in what, thus far, is a trilogy entitled New History Warfare, Colin Stetson takes his bass and other assorted saxophones up once again to construct entire soundscapes with. The effect is mesmerizing. Wave after wave of flitting, honking, scronking notes texture each piece, while the mic’ed up keys give it rhythm and Stetson’s throat-screams lend the occasional ragged melody. Despite the astonishing diversity of sound at no point does it feel like an attempt to simulate the pieces of an actual band – it’s still one man emoting feverishly in every direction he can muster. To see more light.

To counterpoint Laurie Anderson’s narrative appearance on the previous volume, recent collaborative darling Justin Vernon of Bon Iver (on whose doubly eponymous album Stetson appeared on in 2011) lends his high haunting vocals to the proceedings this time, with ghostly wails on “High Above A Grey Green Sea” and a very surprising turn into deathmetal growls on the album’s visceral apex, the stunning, aggressive “Brute”. On “Who the Waves Are Roaring For (Hunted II)”, Stetson briefly considers taking the back seat as Vernon attempts to stretch coherent melodies over top of the jagged architecture, taking each phrase as a new melodic hill to climb. On “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?”, that arrangement is set more firmly, as Vernon’s multitracked vocals take precedence and Stetson’s wailing reigns in ever so slightly to allow some harmony to accompany Vernon’s lead. This is the only moment on the album that feels restrained, and provides sharp contrast to the unbound quality of the rest of the tracks.

Between the latter two tracks comes the finest demonstration of the album’s boundless nature, the title track, “To See More Light”. At 15 minutes, by far the longest track on the album and the longest in Stetson’s oeuvre, he has the time to set out for the goal stated in the track title. Lines build and build throughout, the energy never ceasing, never tiring, always grasping with no view towards cessation. This is where Stetson, no pun intended, shines. With a wider scope set around all of the manifestations of his wild muse, the picture comes into sharper focus and each mad tangent finds its own place within the sonic narrative.

Absolutely unlike anything else I’ve heard (save for Stetson’s previous outings), To See More Light expands what was built upon earlier in the trilogy and gives some new angles and fantastic payoffs, all rooted in the single instrument put in front of his face.

9/10

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