A horn player by trade, Colin Stetson has worked with a diverse range of artists such as Bon Iver, David Byrne, Arcade Fire, Tom Waits, and The National. His solo work consists solely of single-take recordings of him and his saxophone. Over twenty microphones strategically placed in the studio capture the sound he creates, and from these sounds – the clattering of keys, the opening and closing of valves, the air rushing through the brass chamber, his voice as he sings through the reed, the reverberating, overlapping, fluttering, swirling tones – he creates compositions of staggering intensity and striking originality. With circular breathing, Stetson can prolong his ‘songs’ for minutes on end without pause, an impressive technical feat, especially considering that the whole album makes use of no loops or overdubs. Although not ‘songs’ in the traditional sense, these tracks are worlds within themselves, and invite devoted listening.
The relentless Red Horses uses short percussive breaths for syncopated effect, while Awake on Foreign Shores features the low register of a baritone sax with earth-shattering results. Experimentation aside, Stetson retains a clear pop sensibility, and longer tracks like The Stars in His Head and The Righteous Wrath of an Honorable Man are triumphantly melodic, albeit in his idiosyncratic arpeggiated style.
Minimalist composer Ben Frost’s production skilfully weaves the mic levels to bring out the subtleties of Stetson’s performance: at times the keys are soft clicks in the mix, at others they are deafening thuds. Stetson is accompanied by the vocals of My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden and the spoken word of Laurie Anderson (of Big Science fame) on three tracks respectively, but if anything these contributions distract from Stetson’s power. The ‘avant-garde’ and ‘experimental’ labels that will be thrown at this record may well detract potential listeners, but its appeal is surely universal. Without a doubt, Judges is unlike anything you have ever heard before.