Review Summary: One of the best albums of the year so far is also the most unique and eye-opening.
Background information time! Colin Stetson is an acclaimed saxophonist from Montreal who has worked or been affiliated with numerous artists ranging from Arcade Fire to LCD Soundsystem. Judges is Stetson’s second solo LP, and despite any preconceived notions about what is or should be done with woodwinds, John Coltrane this ain’t.
Stetson’s solo work is an absolute marvel that can be classified as monolithic and minimalist at the same time. To elaborate, the music on Judges is almost wholly created by one man with one (enormous) sax in one take with no overdubbing of any kind. Several microphones were used to amplify different parts of the instrument but every sound (and every silence) that is heard is merely the result of a man and his sax. I almost feel wrong saying that Stetson “plays” the saxophone; he utilizes and maximizes every inch of the giant, metal beast. It is at any given moment a percussion set, a guttural drone, and the screech of those in pain.
Now, I can go on and on about how in love I am with Stetson’s technical abilities, (Did I mention that some of these tracks are over five minutes long? 5 minutes of nonstop playing! Now that’s breath control!) but for every ounce of technicality he brings to the table, it is matched by his compositional skills. Judges is dark: clostrophobic and overbearing at times, unsettlingly calm and quiet at others. The song titles do a fine job of readying the listener for this with names such as “From No Part of Me Could I Summon a Voice” and “Clothed in the Skin of the Dead”. The album’s opener, “Awake on Foreign Shores”, sounds like the most foreboding tug boat horn of all time blaring as the ship heads straight towards you, the unsuspecting listener. From there however, the album picks up its rhythm and starts rolling. One of the complaints most directed at “experimental” or “avant-garde” music is that the music doesn’t go anywhere or is pointless. All of the tracks on Judges however, are either definitely headed in a specific direction or so short that it doesn’t matter. The main constant throughout the album is that, though Stetson might throw a lot of notes around, not a single one of them goes to waste.
The few tracks that feature vocals, aside from Colin’s breathing, have them provided and aced by experimental legend Laurie Anderson and My Brightest Diamond singer Shara Worden. Anderson sets the album’s tone during “A Dream of Water” delivering lines like “There were those who lived in the crawlspace/There were people lighting candles/There were people going crazy/There were those who walked the beach/What war is that?” in the flat spoken-word delivery she is known for, all while Stetson arpeggiates like a madman in the background. Worden, however, singlehandedly makes one of my favorite songs on this album, “Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying Sometimes”, a cover of the Blind Willie Johnson classic. Her haunting, gospel delivery plays perfectly with Stetson’s low key drone, punctuated by sounds of his sharp breath.
All of this adds up to something that seems foreign and scary to us today: a wholly original album and sound. Us humans have been making music for millennia upon millennia, you’d think we’d have come up with just about everything we can, right? Well, it doesn’t happen often, but Colin Stetson has done the impossible and come up with something that you have never heard before and will probably not hear again after he calls it quits. This album serves as a nice reminder that originality still exists. Despite the darkness in this album, it serves as a beaming ray of light in a stagnant industry.