by Brennan McCracken (special to Grayowl Point)
When writing about New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light, the latest album from Montreal-based saxophonist Colin Stetson , it’s hard not to focus on the guy’s incredible virtuosity. That every sound on every track — save for four vocal appearances from Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon — was produced by Stetson alone without the help of layering, overdubs or multiple takes speaks to his undeniable technical and creative talent. I’d love to write about all of that — the heady recording process, the spellbinding proficiency on display, the genre-bending composition — but in all honesty I don’t think I have the musical knowledge or the critical gall to tackle this beast of an album from that angle. In a way, I think it deserves better.
I mean, sure, I probably could use those parameters to speak to why I think this album is such a strong contender for this year’s Polaris Prize. But even though this record might look good on paper, it sounds even better and as a front-to-back musical experience it is truly something special.
To See More Light is the third and final installment in a trilogy of records that Stetson began in 2008 — the second of which, 2011’s Judges, was also Polaris shortlisted — and in many ways it feels like a culmination of the huge momentum he’s been building as a solo performer and touring/recording indie rock veteran for the past half-decade or so. Over 11 tracks and 45 minutes, Stetson dredges his lowest lows and ascends to his highest highs, mining tumultuous feelings of love and grief and letting his instrument do the talking, screaming, mourning, what have you. By its very nature, this album is uniquely impressionistic; Vernon’s lyrics aside, there isn’t much of a narrative to latch onto here except for the one that the listener projects themselves. And it’s because of this — not in spite of it — that To See More Light manages feel so important.
This album does not encourage ambivalence; as a whole it’s been composed to ignite very specific flares of sentiment, tugging you closer with every moaning breath. It’s a record of thousands of tiny movements that alchemise into poignant, often brilliant strokes of emotion. Those strokes are there in the keeling breaths that define “Hunted” as a corporeal experience; they’re in the uneasy dance of Stetson’s fingers on opener “And In Truth” that ground Vernon’s lofty vocal performance. Perhaps most prominently they’re in the cinematic sweep and vertical inertia of “To See More Light,” the album’s longest track and arguably Stetson’s finest to date. Each track here is noticeably distinct from the its neighbours — the transition from “In Mirrors” to “Brute” is especially shocking — but they find common ground in their emotional potency.
When taken out of the personal and placed in the context of the Polaris Prize, To See More Light’s power is only amplified by its singularity. Colin Stetson’s combination of technique and songcraft is unparalleled, and if for nothing else, this album deserves to win the Polaris Prize because of its true originality. It’s affecting, inspired and there’s nothing else quite like it in today’s musical landscape.