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Colin Stetson - New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light

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Artist: Colin Stetson

Album: New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light

Label: Constellation

Review date: May. 6, 2013

My review of Colin Stetson’s New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges was a generally positive one, and, in revisiting it a few years later, I still find much of what I said to ring true, awkward constructions and all. I’m no longer as taken by Judges, however, as I was then, and I haven’t played it much over the intervening years. I rightly praised Stetson’s last album for its mix of technical skill and palpable emotion, but after the release of New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light, I’m beginning to wonder if Stetson’s handicapping himself with the albums’ rigid constraints. It’s still quite impressive that Stetson’s playing this music in single takes, with no overdubs; it’s just not so awe-inspiring the second time around. What was unexpected and unpredictable on Judges feels more rote this time around, and, save for a few notable deviations, Stetson largely seems to be doing tricks to which we were all acclimated the last time around.

Stetson’s formidable ability as a saxophonist continues to frequently leave me wondering just how one mouth is making all of those sounds. And he’s not just showing off: As a composer, Stetson pulls no emotional punches in the interest of flaunting his considerable skill set. His heart is decidedly in the right place, and when everything comes together, the results can raise goosebumps, even more than a dozen listens in. Stetson’s technique of singing along with himself through his horn’s mouthpiece beneath the unfurling undulations of “Among the Sef” makes for a mournfully chilling four minutes, and when “Hunted” leaves the ground, abandoning its momentum as it swoops into the air, it’s a potent punch.

Stetson’s technique doesn’t vary much on To See More Light, but the voice that occasionally accompanies it represents the album’s largest departure from its predecessor. On Judges, Stetson recruited My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden and the unmistakable Laurie Anderson; this time he enlists Bon Iver bandmate Justin Vernon. Vernon’s vocals are a world away from Anderson’s clean precision and can’t match the stripped-down power of Worden’s performance. The generous layering of his contribution to “And in Truth” smothers the evocative qualities of what could otherwise be one of the album’s best tracks, and his stab at gospel soulfulness on a cover of Washington Phillips’ “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today” makes for an awkward misstep on an album’s that’s often more expressive when the only voice to be heard is Stetson’s, wordless and obscured. “Brute,” the worst offender, would have been best left on the cutting room floor; its attempt at a change in tone is admirable, but Vernon’s cartoonish growl and howl take it over the edge in an unintentionally comical finale.

“To See More Light” is the centerpiece of the album, a 15-minute test of endurance in which a twining melody gives way to plodding percussion and a raspy, labored wail. It’s the album’s most ambitious track, if not its most effective, a seamless, multi-movement suite for one that ends with the most obvious exhibition of exertion I’ve ever heard from Stetson’s saxophone. It makes me want to hear Stetson continue to reach and expand his vision and the limits of his capabilities, even if it means abandoning the purity of his approach. Even Stetson’s most powerful moments feel very rehearsed. His music abounds with soul, but could use some wildness of spirit; after one is familiar with his approach, there’s little surprise to be found. As a result, To See More Light is another strong effort from Colin Stetson, and a familiar one. Should there be another entry in the New History Warfare series, Stetson would benefit from a broadening of his tactical approach.

By Adam Strohm

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New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges

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