Colin Stetson's 'Chimæra I' Is a Foreboding Beast
Published Nov 10, 2022While every saxophonist breathes into their instrument, Colin Stetson brings an entire world to life when he puts lips to reed. His exploratory music is a singular, highly technical style always creeping further into new domains; while there are flickers of hope in many of the hallowed halls and churning realms he constructs, darkness reigns.
One of the most remarkable things about Stetson's musical trajectory has been his ability to stay strikingly avant-garde while advancing into the mainstream. "If I thought about playing inside and outside of boundaries, I wouldn't have a career," he said in 2020, and entering his recordings feels like being transported into another universe. His solo catalogue has been built off an uncommon production approach assembled around key elements — his masterful, continuous circular breathing technique; the fine textures and tactile timbres that come from strategic mic placements on him, his bass sax and the room he's in and the artful mixing necessary to combine these into a fluid, mesmerizing whole.
His exceptional skills have brought a wealth of opportunities. Stetson gained recognition through his solo recordings and working with an array of indie heavyweights – Feist, Tom Waits, Bon Iver, LCD Soundsystem, TV on the Radio and BADBADNOTGOOD – and increasingly in film, where he's spent the most time lending his signature style to a variety of soundtracks. He's found a particularly fitting space in horror, crafting the unsettling backdrops to Hereditary and this year's Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
From this disquieting space, the Montreal-based artist has expanded his formidable discography over a diverse collection of experimental work that's drawn from minimalism, maximalism, classical, avant-garde jazz and, this time around, metal-tinged subterranean drone. It's a natural diversion for Stetson, a self-described voracious music consumer who's also part of the adventurous jazz-metal fusion quartet Ex Eye. While Chimæra I's two 20-minute pieces lack some of the dynamics and emotional range that make previous efforts stand out (understandable given the stylistic shift), it nonetheless hosts a compelling polyphonic force, offering a deeper look at Stetson's compositional abilities.
Processing, manipulations and intricately layered dissonance and harmonies help enhance Stetson's menacing, otherworldly saxophone tonalities. In album opener "Orthrus," a sustained tremulous drone marked by odd gasps unfolds like drifting through a hazy labyrinth — it feels eerily alive, its rumble enveloping and expansive. Creaks, groans, clacking metal and massive shadows billow and envelop before loops of wheezing, rattling sax honk anxiously. Stetson blows out deep, mechanical phantom wails (vocalizations through his horn's reed) that evoke some strange creature howling on the hunt; over the next ten minutes or so, Stetson transmutes his sax into twisted iron and grinding steel, purgatorial roars that buzz incessantly underfoot. Chimæra I has an apocalyptic character, and in its first twenty minutes, Stetson takes his time making this known.
The album's second half, "Cerberus," intensifies gradually on warped and swelling notes. Hypnotic and reverberating, it conjures floating through vast underground catacombs on some pathway to hell, with the odd desperate, disavowed soul screaming far off through its gates. The track's second half segues into somewhat lighter territory — still whirring and gloomy, its wails seem clearer, guides shrouded in beautiful sorrow.
In Greek mythology, Cerberus and Orthrus are monstrous multi-headed dogs (the former guards the underworld) and are the Chimaera's siblings. The Chimaera (a freak amalgam of different animal parts) and its relatives aptly represent this record, Stetson's concepts typically play more of a supporting role to his music's immediate potency. Chimæra I could be taken as nightmare dispatches — haunted spirits trying to find their way out. Its ghostly aura is a cavern of pained emotions staking their claim, where faint glimmers of light come through cracks in its walls. It summons beasts like only Stetson can. (Room 40)