The most tortured-sounding of the brass instruments, the saxophone has always been an ideal device for conveying volatility, capable of a full battery of tormented shrieks, manically blissful yelps, forlorn honks, and unsettling drones. Inventively dedicated to pushing the sax’s boundaries, Colin Stetson follows in the sizable footsteps of Bird, Coltrane, Rollins, and Coleman, utilizing the instrument’s dark heft to mine the possibilities of low-end-focused experimentation while cultivating his own robust, earthy tone. That tone continues to develop on Never Were the Way She Was, a collaboration with Arcade Fire bandmate Sarah Neufeld, on which Stetson’s bassy rumble is counterpoised by Neufeld’s violin, itself ranging between delicate ethereality and frantic, scratchy intensity. This creates less a duet than a battle, a folie à deux between two oppositely pitched instruments, conducted across songs that feel both desolately spare and unremittingly dense.
The album opens with the appropriately titled “The Sun Roars Into View,” on which the brass and strings, clearly demarcated at first, are pulled closer and closer in a pulsing, vacillating dance, their sounds merging into a single feverish spiral. This tension between soothing harmony and clashing atonality continues across an album that’s as defined by conflict as Stetson’s last three solo projects. Yet where New History Warfare: Volume 3 pitted its grotesque panoply of breath-manipulated horn effects against smooth vocal parts (many provided by frequent Stetson collaborator Bon Iver), the music here is entirely wordless, structured around the twisting interplay of cyclical rhythms. The focus is therefore narrower, and while Stetson doesn’t reach the same heights of grandiose menace as on his previous album, the results are roundly impressive, rooted to the continuing spectacle of two discrete approaches melting into one another, each disrupting and perverting the effect of the other.
This complexity comes as a consequence of Stetson’s continuing development as a musician, the result of a regimen of breathing exercises that have pushed him toward a strange, circular approach to vocalization. With Neufeld’s wild strings adding to the improvisational feel, Never Were the Way She Was combines the fluidity of jazz with the emotive expansiveness of avant-garde tone pieces, the lower registers of the sax carving out an elaborate underworld of throaty hoots and bellows to complement the violin’s screeching heights. This makes for rich music that never sounds jumbled, clean lines of expression running through the neatly arrayed freneticism of “In the Vespers” or the swampy atmospherics of “With the Dark Huge of Time.” Rather than tracking sounds on top of one another, Stetson again emphasizes the freedom of live recording, which proves the perfect playing field for two instruments locked in such a stunning dance of death.