Auditory illusions are hard to come by in the musical world these days. It’s a fair bet most people aren’t even aware of them when they do hear them. And that’s the point. The new record, Never Were the Way She Was from Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld is something of a multi-leveled, auditory illusion. The first level is the music itself. It’s the kind of record that makes the listener think ‘how did they do that?,’ and then answer that same question with the most obvious choice. The music sounds like it was created with lots of loops, overdubs and other recording studio trickery employed by so many others. But indeed it was not. The music is just the creative intermingling of virtuoso playing on violin and saxophones, mainly bass and tenor.
The soundscapes that Stetson and Neufeld create are impressive and strange, sometimes a little terrifying. One of the stand-out pieces on the record, “The Rest of Us,” captures a lot of what makes the record so interesting and startling musically. It’s a brooding piece of cyclical saxophone riffs, atmospheric background fiddle, ghostly singing, and a steady beat throughout that makes the track feel alive. It’s the sound of impending doom if this were the soundtrack to a Dario Argento film. Alone, it simply stalks your mind. Watch the newly released video that goes along with the song and you’ll have entered surrealist territory.
Stetson has not only embraced avant-garde music, but the kinds of techniques that give him space to create the auditory illusions of loops and overdubs. One technique he is known for is circular breathing, a technique employed by masterful didgeridoo players. It’s what keeps the air flow constant and what allows for other pieces like “In the Vespers,” another excellent example of this technique, and the collaboration between Neufeld and Stetson.
The second and less obvious auditory illusion of this record is its ability to make the listener forget to think about the skill of the performers behind the music. It’s easy to become lost in these pieces and forget that in fact you are listening to two musicians who run in Arcade Fire circles, and who have collaborated with a wide array of musicians, including the noted avant-garde jazz musician, Anthony Braxton.
Despite how impressive their skills are on their instruments, it seems the point is the music and not showiness. These pieces are not the same as a long complicated guitar solo in the midst of a standard rock tune in the tradition of Jimmy Page or Eddie Van Halen. This is the work of two musicians applying their skills to create something creative, new, and at times unsettling. Never Were the Way She Was is the sound of art without ego.