Hats off for Stetson's big blowout at Brighton's Duke of York



Colin Stetson has enough draw to fill this arthouse cinema on a Sunday night; his collaborative discography reads like the tracklist for a Starbucks compilation full of bands who make the sort of poignantly uplifting, evocatively progressive music often associated with hipster-indie movies, from Bon Iver to Arcade Fire to Feist to The National, so it's a fitting choice of venue.

A lone figure in jeans and white t-shirt, bearded and neatly coiffed like an urban lumberjack, he covers himself with contact mics in the mode of an undercover agent on a sting, then selects an alto-sax from the array of gleaming pipework before him, raises it to his lips and launches into 'Spindrift' from his most recent album, All This I Do For Glory. A glittering torrent of arpeggiated triads burst forth, delivered in a hard, skirling tone, amid a wash of cavernous reverb. His mastery of circular breathing is soon apparent as the streams of notes gush forth in an unyielding fortissimo, the enormous reverb causing the overtones to build into shifting, overlapping patterns, like a one-man Steve Reich ensemble, while the amplified clicking of the pads provides a rhythmic counterpoint. The ferocity of his electronically-augmented onslaught occasionally threatens to overwhelm the PA's capabilities; a pulsing major third in the low register sets up a driving bassline, and then Stetson simultaneously begins to hum a wordless melody from back in his throat, which floats spectrally over the hypnotic waves of sound.


After this first salvo, it's time to bring out the big gun - his trademark bass saxophone. The thunderous impact of its low-end draws whoops from the crowd, entirely filling the cavernous space. During 'Judges', from his 2011 release, Stetson sets up a harmonically simple bassline that cycles round a minor key chord progression, adding roars and yelps in the upper harmonics like a didgeridoo player, while the clicking of the pads add a driving percussion. The ability to play multiple parts at once, without recourse to loop pedals or other sampling technology, is Stetson's great discovery – all his compositions are cut according to the same template, with repeating bass figures marching under ghostly high-frequency melodies, and despite the occasional controlled outbreaks of skronking free-jazz chaos there's a simple, wistfully big-sky melodic sense going on that explains his fit with his indie collaborators, and which contrasts intriguingly with the undeniably macho demonstration of physical strength.

If the bass sax was low, the contrabass clarinet is even lower – 'Between Water And Wind' commences with a dense fog of low frequency enveloping the auditorium and continues with the unrelenting buzzsaw drone and hum of industrial machinery. It's fascinating and a little unnerving to see a man push himself to the limits of physical endurance in the name of art – "We usually get some fainters in the audience," says Stetson, and those susceptible to panic attacks should perhaps approach with caution. For the most part, the music arising from this unique performance style, utterly devoid of dynamic variation or any interspersion of silence, has an otherworldly, hypnotic power, but on occasion Stetson's yelping and hooting over the endless grind shades over into the cartoonish, like listening to the Clangers lost and adrift in a bottomless chasm. The Duke of York's was originally opened as a turn-of-the-century music hall and variety theatre, and one could imagine the watching spirits of it's vanished prestidigitators, quick-change artists and escapologists would have felt a kinship with this remarkable performer.

– Eddie Myer
– Photos by Agata Urbaniak