Review Summary: An album that feels entirely without precedence.
The temptation with New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges
is to try to place it somewhere within jazz; the dominance of Colin Stetson's bass saxophone, its appreciation of cacophony, and the general freeform approach of the whole album makes links to the likes of Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, John Zorn, and Albert Ayler very tempting.
And yet, when you start really thinking about it, and when you realise just what a broad range of sounds those artists cover, it's barely even jazz at all. Stetson's own method of recording alone distances it from jazz's history - his saxophone isn't just a melodic instrument to him, but also a percussive one, as well as his own bass accompaniment and a vocoder for his own vocals from time to time. What he doesn't conjure by playing live (often in one take, according to interviews) comes from programmed electronics, meaning any improvisation goes out of the window in favoured of strongly structured compositions. So not jazz, then. God knows what we should
be calling it, though - drone, minimalism, electronica, and fusion all seem just as misleading as each other. It's not that the album hits so many bases in some kind of proggy, genre-hopping mania, more that it constantly falls through the cracks between them. What are we to make of "Judges", with its thudding rhythms, screeches, ghostly vocals, and its repeated arpeggio (that could in itself just as easily turn up in fusion as minimalism)? What of the insistent "The Stars in His Head (Dark Lights Remix)", that steadily changes rhythm throughout, ending up at one point with something that sounds oddly like trance? And then, straight off the back of those two, where does the beautiful, quasi-orchestrated "All the Days I've Missed You (ILAIJ I)" leave us?
It would certainly be interesting to record the reactions of all the people that hear this, be they the post-rockers listening because it's being released on Constellation, the Laurie Anderson fans checking it out for her guest vocals, or those checking him out ahead of seeing him live at Jeff Mangum's ATP this year, or those who've heard of Steton through his impeccable indie resume, which includes collaborations with Arcade Fire, Tom Waits, Bon Iver, Feist, TV on the Radio, LCD Soundsystem, and The National, among others. In reality, none of those things prepare you at all for the sound of this album, and some of them feel like downright lies, as if they somehow must
be wrong - exactly how somebody with a musical vision like this ended up recording with Feist is especially baffling.
But then again could anything
prepare you for this? Perhaps. A knowledge of Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians
will help make sense of the melodic play on "Clothed in the Skin of the Dead", for instance, while ambient fans will find "In Love and in Justice" easy to adopt into their own taste, and blues travellers will understand what's going on with the Blind Willie Johnson cover "Lord I Just Can't Keep From Crying Sometimes" more than most. The problem, though, is that you'd almost need to come up with a different reference point for every individual track, which is utterly remarkable for an album that doesn't actually have that broad a range of sound. It makes it impossible to pick out an ideal target audience for this; it's just far too unreasonable to expect anybody to have heard everything that this refers to. I know I certainly haven't.
The question then becomes this: do you actually need
to be prepared? Crucially, the answer is a resounding 'no'. New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges
is a record of remarkable power, one that is clear about the moods it wants to express despite the unusual, disorientating ways it chooses to express them. This album and a few videos of Stetson playing (the guy is a monster
) will probably be enough to convince most people that he's a genius, but you don't need to be that smart yourself to appreciate what is probably 2011's most unique album.