You might think you understand the saxophone and the music and sounds it can produce. But really, unless you have ever listened to Colin Stetson, you’ve only heard a part of it. If traditional uses and playing of saxophone is the visible spectrum, then the work of Stetson is the sonic equivalent of ultraviolet or infrared. If you are completely unfamiliar with the man I speak of, here’s the Cliff Notes version. Colin Stetson is a winds player who utilizes mostly bass and alto sax. He employs techniques such as circular breathing, multi-phonics, polyrhythmic key-clicking, and reed vocalization in combination with an array of carefully-placed microphones around the instrument to create otherworldly universes of sound that are all recorded in a single take with no overdubs or looping (any live video of him will both prove this fact and completely disorient you). In 2013 he released the third and final installment of his New History Warfare series, which you can read up on here (yes, this is my Tumblr; yes, feel free to follow me).
Since then, the biggest question surrounding Stetson has been what he could possibly do next. If New History Warfare is meant to be a self-contained representation of his solo work, then presumably future work would involve collaborating with other people. But who could he work with that would complement his visceral and fragile musical ecosystems without overwhelming them? Enter Sarah Neufeld, a violinist and composer who has worked alongside Stetson in various capacities, from the back of Arcade Fire to Arcade Fire’s classical spin-off Bell Orchestre, and more recently, on tour in support of each other’s most recent solo albums. Neufeld, too, has some impressive solo work under her belt in 2013’s Hero Brother. Both Stetson and Neufeld thrive in building beautifully-textured and dense walls of sound through minimalist composition often based on repetition and bursts of energy, so much so that the pairing of the two now seems utterly inevitable and meant to be. The resulting album of this collaboration, Never were the way she was, is not only a perfect next step from New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light; it is a deeply affecting piece of music expertly crafted by two musicians at the top of their game that will utterly chill you to the bone and likely stir up a well of emotions, even if you’re not quite sure why.
(stream via Constellation Records and The Fader)
The techniques and sounds that have become associated with both Stetson and Neufeld are both front and center here, though none exemplify that more than opener “The sun roars into view.” Fuzzy ambience gives way to Neufeld’s energetic ostinato playing and Stetson’s trademark measured wall of similarly repeated arpeggios and melodies that intertwine and dance around each other in a mesmerizing display. The piece grows, swells, retreats, and grows again, all so naturally that it can be easy to forget that the entire backbone of the piece is built upon a single repeating theme. It’s minimalist composition at its most expressive, ethereal, and effective. As Neufeld layers her own haunted moans on top and Stetson joins her in an absolutely gripping call-and-response, the piece hits a stratospheric emotional peak that is sure to stir something in the hearts of anyone with anything left to feel.
According to the duo, Never were the way she was is about a girl who “who ages slow as mountains; excited, exalted, and ultimately exiled in her search for a world that resembles her experience.” As a concept it feels perhaps a bit strained and arbitrary, particularly given that it’s difficult to convey a specific narrative such as that through instrumental music alone. Certainly one’s enjoyment of the music will not be enhanced or lessened by this knowledge, but there is one aspect to this concept that fits the compositions here (and the duo’s music in general) perfectly. It is the idea of the other: someone or something almost otherworldly that does not belong in the community of which they come from. Certainly Stetson has explored this theme overtly in his music before. In the third live video linked above, as an introduction to his track “High Above The Grey Green Sea,” you can hear Stetson talk about the purportedly true story of a whale who communicates in frequencies ever-so-slightly off from the rest of its brethren that they cannot hear or respond to it, and the whale roams the oceans eternally alone in search of someone, anyone, who can hear him. That sense of loneliness, fear, frustration, and the feeling that one cannot find a place for themself in this world — these are the true emotional and narrative through-lines that exalt Never were the way she was from musical exercise to heartrending impressionistic art.
That musical otherworldliness is also a key element to the album, particularly in some of the slower and less rhythmically-intense pieces. “Won’t be a thing to become” lopes in a very unsettlingly 3/4 with Stetson providing a more traditional (yet still not any less creepy) bassline and Neufeld complimenting with an interlocking melody, all topped off with Stetson’s vocals that sound more like an alien chorus than one man. Album climax “Never were the way she was” is a slowly-growing mass of spectral noise that never quite breaks loose of its own loneliness and instead retreats into itself, slowly shrinking away into nothingness. “With the dark hug of time” though takes the cake for the most viscerally-upsetting piece of the bunch. Another slow trudge through 3/4, Stetson more gurgles and squawks his way through the piece than plays. The constant and insistent downbeat of his key clicks only serve to ratchet up the anxiety and pressure complimented by Neufeld’s constantly shifting tremolos. When the bottom drops out about 2/3 of the way through, all that remains is a drone and the sheer alien moans of Stetson, calling to mind the aforementioned whale who can only communicate in tones no one else understands.
Combined with the fast-paced and more manic rhythms and melodies present on tracks like “In the vespers” and “The rest of us,” the album displays an astonishing range given the seemingly limited musical toolbox the two have to work from. But that in itself is at the crux of why this is such an effective piece of work and why what Stetson and Neufeld possess is truly special and not just a novelty. They’re not just eschewing traditional musical and compositional techniques. They’re using an entirely separate pallet of sounds to paint a musical picture that is simultaneously familiar and foreign. The music is built in a world of paradoxes — simultaneously raw and powerful but also so incredibly fragile and delicate; emotionally-dark and gloomy yet also often hopeful and optimistic. The music will be categorized by most as avant-garde because it is so technically and musically unusual and dense. That’s a misdirection though. This music is highly approachable and incredibly immediate because there is no pretense or obfuscation of meaning through anything they’re doing. The emotions and intent present are communicated plainly. It would be nearly impossible to not feel something while listening to this album. If music, like all art, is communication, then Never were the way she was is communication at its most direct and universal.
There lays another paradox: an album so focused on the inability to communicate effectively and find a place in the world is perhaps some of the most effectively-communicated art that should elicit similar emotional responses from all peoples from around the world, and I would imagine even intelligent otherworldly beings. This album is certainly not “heavy” in the musical sense (though there should be plenty of moments that fans of drone, post-metal, and atmospheric black metal can get behind), but in an emotional sense, there will be likely few, if any, that come close to the crushing weight of what Stetson and Neufeld have accomplished. Listen to this album.