Review Summary: Three volumes in and we're still not quite sure how he's even making these sounds in the first place.
It seems to be Colin Stetson’s sole duty on this world to utterly destroy the commonly held concept of a saxophone. The pre-Stetson picture would be one of a brass instrument with a couple dozen button things to press; possibly even with a few scratches if you’ve seen your fair share. You know how it sounds, for the most part, and what type of music it plays. You might also have arrived on the idea of saxophones being the perfect instrument to play if soulful, moonlight silhouettes were all that mattered. Post-Stetson, the image is muddled somewhat, mainly due to its utter disintegration as pieces are scattered in related concepts no one dared to suggest before. The idea of saxophones as percussion; its use in place of vocals; its place as the moody reflection of other music... if it didn’t all work it would not be so confusing. Nevertheless, the second volume of New History Warfare managed to cause a bit of a stir in music circles not often associated with jazz or experimental music. In part, this was due to Colin’s previous associations with the likes of Tom Waits, Arcade Fire and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, but otherwise the success owes itself to his utterly bizarre and fascinating style of playing.
Vol. 3 is far from a surprising leap from Vol. 2 and Vol. 1: sticking close to the never ending barrage of arpeggios and valve-percussion which formed the bulk of those two albums. The technical aspect to his performance -circular breathing, chiefly- is no less captivating here, and it’s clear Colin has perfected new ways to push the most out of his instrument. This added variation in timbre and effect is a subtle improvement on an already iconic sound, and in many parts on the album he uses this to make his instrument seem more human than ever. For example, in the frenzied tempo of “Hunted” his saxophone whines and squeals in something between pain and despair, creating a hurried cry for help of a track in a very “how the hell is he making those sounds?” way.
By far the most surprising addition is Justin Vernon (Bon Iver, to you and me), who lends his voice to a sizable chunk of Vol. 3. His sickly-sweet falsetto works surprisingly well as something for Colin to play around, and it introduces an increased soulful element to the album’s palette. More surprising still is Vernon’s departure from this signature falsetto into both his regular voice in gospel cover “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?” and death metal-esque growls in the heavy and aggressive “Brute.” His efforts don’t quite match those by Laurie Anderson and Shara Worden in Vol. 2, though they’re a welcome addition nonetheless, if only to add spice to the formula.
The album’s definitely a Colin-centred affair however, and Vernon’s contributions remain sidenotes in comparison to the 15-minute epic of a title track “To See More Light.” With it, Colin balances a sense of foreboding with ever increasing tempo, intensity and an obvious joy of playing. It’s by far and away the highlight of an already brilliant album, although this does place it in opposition of the few moments Colin lets his guard down and relaxes into what’s now a familiar formula. However, while Vol. 3 may not be quite as shocking as the two preceding it, the progression and perfection of his sound makes it no less excellent than Vol. 2, and no less worthy of its success.