Out of the Box #4
The Righteous Wrath of an Honorable Man
OUT OF THE BOX #3
Colin Stetson ~ Righteous Wrath (2011)
Stetson’s first record on Constellation Records was a tour-only 7” released in November of 2010 in anticipation of his then-forthcoming album New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges (2011). The A-side of this single, “The Righteous Wrath of an Honorable Man,” somewhat improbably became a TikTok audio meme in late 2021 and throughout 2022, generally accompanying sped-up video of cats. Perhaps less surprising, considering the fact that The Caretaker had previously become a TikTok meme for the “haunted ballroom” sound of his Everywhere At The End of Time, which freaked out the Zoomers, racking up millions of views on YouTube. But even so, I certainly never would have predicted this trajectory back in 2008 when I first heard Stetson’s muscular take on circular breathing. (Surely there’s more to be said about the development of audio memes on TikTok/Reels, but that will have to wait for another time.)
I first encountered the work of Colin Stetson with New History of Warfare Vol. 1, which I reviewed for The Silent Ballet in 2008. In the years since his debut, Stetson has gone on to critical acclaim that I would have found hard to anticipate for such a singular style of solo saxophone. Not that I’m mad about it (except when folks instantly equate saxophone with jazz; what’s with that?) Having already worked with Tom Waits, Arcade Fire, and TV on the Radio as a sideman, since beginning his solo career he’s gone on to collaborate with Laurie Anderson and Bon Iver, as a duo with his wife Sarah Neufeld, part of the free improv group Oso Blanco, and the post-metal of EX EYE, with Greg Fox (Liturgy), Shahzad Ismaily (Secret Chiefs 3, Ceramic Dog) and Toby Summerfield. And let’s not forget SORROW (2016), his reimagining of Górecki’s 3rd Symphony. In more recent years, Stetson has done an extensive amount of soundtrack work, including for Hereditary and Color Out of Space, perhaps fittingly finding a niche in idiosyncratic horror.
I moved to Montreal, where Stetson is sometimes based, the year after I reviewed his first disc, and have since had the opportunity to see him perform many times in a variety of settings, and even had the opportunity to chat briefly with him following a performance at the MAC museum. (Perhaps I’ll have him on the podcast at some point in the future.) I think I picked up this 7” from Stetson directly at a performance in 2010, shortly before the release of Judges, from which the A-side is drawn.
Both sides are short, the A-side just under two and half minutes and the B-side three and a half. Short and sweet seems right for an album teaser, which should leave us wanting more.
“Righteous Wrath” shows off Stetson’s technique, which involves circular breathing so that there are no periods of silence for breath intake, and using multiple microphones to capture other sounds to create polyrhythms and other parts, for instance tapping the keys, humming through a contact mic on his neck, and simply capturing the sound emitted from different parts of the horn, which is relevant as Stetson also deploys overblowing and other extended techniques previously developed by players including John Butcher and Evan Parker. But as I mention in my review of his first record, Stetson’s reference points often have less to do with European free improv as with the shredding of metal and the intricate rhythms of IDM. I’ve compared his work before to Aphex Twin and Alarm Will Sound, and if memory serves he’s done covers of Slayer in his live set. So I just want to again point out how lazy the sax=jazz formula is, and in any case genre is just a helpful label for discovery. Listen for yourself. And for all that, despite not being a pop song, there is something catchy and straightforward about “Righteous Wrath,” particularly in its resolution, that makes it an appealing single. And again, a little less surprising that it ultimately ended up soundtracking sped-up cat videos on the Internet.
The B-Side is “Judges (Damian Taylor Concretification Mix)”, a composition drawn from an array of samples from across Judges, both something of an album teaser and a new work in its own right. Just the kind of thing one wants from a promotional 7”. Taylor is a programmer and musician known for his work with Björk, and his rework showcases Stetson’s style amidst the kinds of clicks and cuts rhythms that were so ubiquitous in the early years of laptop music. But Taylor also switches gears multiple times throughout the composition, and leans heavily into textural development as much as rhythm. A nice little piece to revisit after more than a decade, but it also has me going back to listen to the entire New History of Warfare series.
We’ll be back in two weeks for another record from Out of the Box, but first a regular ACL newsletter with our 2024 Winter Previews, and my own personally picks for Sound Propositions favorite records of 2023. Until then. Peace.