Improbable as it seems, the last few years have seen a resurgence in non-jazz saxophones. Once They’ve been lifted out of jazz brunches and placed squarely into otherwise cool indie records (Before Today, Kaputt, Halcyon Days). A nasty sax solo even finds its way on to Lady Gaga’s new album. But while many haute-indie purveyors have found ways to reappropriate cheesy saxophones, Colin Stetson wields an ancient bass saxophone like a war horn. By using a physiologically complex circular breathing method, Stetson is able to create a stunning flurry of notes that are as beautiful as they are cacophonous. Stetson doesn’t have time for coy little games of winking irony; in his hands, the saxophone becomes something sincere and apocryphal and primitive and metaphysical.
The stunning New History Warfare Vol 2 showcased Stetson’s compositional talents, forging transcendent moments out of short bursts of hopelessly complex musical figures. Now, a quick followup EP, Those Who Didn’t Run, builds the album’s achievement by significantly expanding Stetson’s compositions, pushing the two songs outward to over ten minutes a piece. Titled after a cryptic line from apocalyptic ”A Dream of Water,” a piece narrated by Laurie Andereson, Those Who Didn’t Run feels like a natural extension of New History Warfare both in terms of aesthetic and ethos.
Musically, Those Who Didn’t Run is built of the same raw material: furiously arpeggiated figures, course ghost bellows, martially percussive clacks. The key difference, however, is that both “Those Who Didn’t Run” and “The End of Your Suffering” are significant investments. Stretching beyond their own horizons, the songs lock you in for the duration partly because it dares you to engage with such avant-baroque music. Of the two, “Those Who Didn’t Run” is the more immediately rewarding; its fat, melodic figures are highlighted by the subtle use of counterpointing. Like a pot of simmering rust, “Those Who Didn’t Run” boils and steams and vents, generating a tremendous amount of heat in the process. But as challenging as “The End of Your Suffering” may seem initially, it rewards patience because the almost narrative-like arc of the conflict and resolution of the song’s primary themes is breathtaking. To this end, there is again something vaguely apocalyptic about Those Who Didn’t Run. When the titular lines pops up in “A Dream of Water,” Anderson seems to be referring to a group who stayed behind to face whatever hellish fate try to claim everyone else. Like New History Warfare, this record sounds ghosted, paranoid of the universe’s cataclysmic potential. But, as always with Stetson, just as piece seems on the verge of being overwhelmed, he finds a humane center amid the chaos, a figure, a line, a subtle tone shift that locates something distinctly tender and raw.
I vaguely recall an interview with Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch where he claimed, essentially, that he didn’t understand music that wasn’t sincere. He was depressed (and maybe a little repulsed) by the blankly cynical irony that dominated much of the indie culture from the 90s. This stuck with me because it seemed like a powerful repudiation of a kind of digestibly ironic art (bad=good) that gets too easily propagated. The disingenuous inclusion of hairy sax solos in Before Today and Kaputt is frustrating because it’s all about ironic posturing. It’s a ‘stache, a trucker hat, a sweating can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. While I understand that Tim and Eric certainly have their place in the culture, I appreciate and admire sincere artistic expression more than I do clever re-appropriation. Because Kaputt feels like an interesting intellectual exercise and Those Who Didn’t Run feels like a thrilling abstract reflection of something resembling the messiness of existence.
Rating: 8.5 / 10