In the first rush of musical discovery, epiphanies come thick and fast. For me, the late 80s introduced so much music unlike any I had already known (or even dreamt about existing) that it seemed barely a week went by without some new band or other literally taking my breath away. Hearing Liz Fraser’s voice soaring away in Gobbledegook, being pounded and pummelled by Mudhoney’s sludgefest, Isn’t Anything’s amazing squall of noise, Tom Waits’ gravel gargling tales of parched weirdness – looking back it is hard to know whether it was my age and relative ignorance that made this time so revelatory or maybe there was just loads more inspiration around then.
Whatever, such moments have become increasingly rare for me in recent years. Sure, music still has the ability to astonish and surprise me but, these days, it’s rare that I listen to something that doesn’t elicit the response, ‘this really reminds me of…[insert: Talk Talk, Talking Heads, Television, Truman’s Water…]’ or, more likely, ‘someone but I can’t think who’. After all, much of what I like to listen to has been made by artists who have been inspired/influenced by artists that I like to listen to. That’s (partly) why I listen to them!
But DRC has helped me broaden my musical vistas, look beyond the norm and taken me out of my comfort zone…often I am listening to artists that have been selected by someone else, and that frequently circumvents the problem outlined in the previous paragraph. It has also led me to a few albums that I would probably have missed in times gone by…New History Warfare Vol. 2 Judges by Colin Stetson is one of those. And while, even after half a year of having the album in my possession, I am still trying to ascertain whether this is an album I love, it is certainly one I admire and respect, not least because Stetson produces a sound so unlike anything I’ve ever come across before (I didn’t really get the SunO))) comparison that Rob suggested on the evening…there we go again, more comparisons…but then I have deliberately tried my hardest to wipe all memories of Sun O))) from my mind). The fact that this revelatory sound is produced by a saxophone, an instrument that has been around for a long time now and has been wrenched through all sorts of paces by Coltrane, Coleman, Adderley, Parker, Marsalis to name but a few, makes this achievement all the more remarkable. From the very first note of Judges – an ominous yet distant held note that sounds something like a fog horn that fades then reappears four or five times until it reaches a deafening volume – it is clear that Stetson is doing something quite unlike anyone else around (at least, to my knowledge). The fact that he manages this whilst still producing a record that is perfectly listenable, even accessible at times, only adds to the achievement. For those of you who find the demands of free jazz too much, fret not. Judges is nothing like, for example, Coltrane’s Meditations or Sun Ra’s Heliocentric Worlds Vol 2 (‘more’s the pity’ I hear the dissenting voices cry). I’ve always found these two albums amongst the most challenging, discordant and unsettling albums I own. Stetson’s effort, however, offers light with the shade; patterns are prevalent and easy to locate, hooks appear every now and then and there is even a torch song (of sorts) in his version of the traditional ‘Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying Sometimes’, which features bewitching vocals from My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden.
So, whilst I have yet to reach the stage with this album where I can’t help but pull it off the shelf, every time I do, it digs a little deeper into my affections and makes that little bit more sense to me – the hooks sink that little bit deeper and I feel a little bit more admiration for a record that has introduced me to new sounds and forms whilst teetering on (but never falling over) the line that separates music from noise.
Nick listened: Stetson made an appearance at my other record a club a few weeks ago, in the form of his latest record (New History Warfare Volume 3: To See More Light), which I’d been eager to hear. I was so impressed that I picked up a copy at the earliest opportunity, and it took barely five minutes to decide that I was going to do the same with …Judges. The copy I ordered direct from his Canadian record label arrived yesterday, and I’m listening to it again now.
Stetson’s sound is monumental, elemental, and ethereal at the same time. It is spooky and moving and percussive and, somehow, still melodic. He manages to make a saxophone sound like a synthesiser. The resultant music is fascinating and brilliant, and far more enjoyable and accessible than our fumbling descriptions might suggest.
Rob listened: Couldn’t help noticing Stetson in recent end of year lists. I still had no idea what to expect. Tom’s introduction didn’t make things much clearer, except to say that as soon as the sound started, it all made sense. Incredible, in the true sense of the word. Who said there was nothing new under the sun? (Ecclesiastes 1:9 did actually – Ed)