When renowned saxophonist and composer Colin Stetson decided to rope in his fellow Arcade Fire collaborator and violinist Sarah Neufeld into last year’s Never Were the Way She Was, his first solo album outside of his New History Warfare saga, I praised the foresight and innovation as to what a violin would bring to Stetson’s very distinctive form of composition. For those who haven’t heard the New History Warfare records, they consist of some ridiculously forward-thinking and progressive arrangements of essentially just saxophones and ambience. Stetson is known for his advanced circular breathing techniques and ability to make the saxophone sound like absolutely anything, and on those albums he created soundscapes of serene beauty and anxious terror, just with his one instrument and millions of techniques. It was impressive to the point in which on first listen to New History Warfare III: To See More Light, I legitimately thought the sounds being made were electronically produced, something I am still embarrassed of to this day.
Neufeld joined on Never Were the Way She Was, and immediately brought a brilliant extra dimension to Stetson’s arrangements. There was still plenty of mind-bending saxophone parts and gorgeous timbres, but with the addition of Neufeld’s violin and vocals the album took a serene and beautiful atmosphere, leaning far closer toward ambient and classical than the noisy and drone-influenced material on Stetson’s earlier albums. And the reason I’m explaining all this context with regard to a record that Stetson does not appear on, is basically because this is a new Stetson record, in its own weird sense. Stetson himself doesn’t appear here, but his compositional style is all over this. The Ridge is essentially Neufeld taking Never Were the Way She Was and recreating it with only her own instruments. The minimalistic arrangements are here, the impeccable production is here, the forward-thinking compositions and timbres are paramount, and in all honesty it feels as much as a natural progression from Never Were the Way She Was as that album was a natural progression from To See More Light.
Stetson’s compositions have always been linked to the 20th Century classical movement minimalism (or “post-minimalism” according to some, but I never really learned the difference between the two), using electronic means such as looping and sampling to manipulate organic instruments to form new and experimental timbres and textures. Instruments such as violin and saxophone (with circular breathing) have natural capabilities of holding notes for long periods of time, often creating hypnotic oscillating drones, and Neufeld has continued that onto this album, as showcased in the expansive title track, which features dozens of layers of violin all floating around as a high-pitched drone. The attempts of recreating Stetson’s saxophone percussion that was evident in cuts like “The Rest of Us” from the previous album using a live drum kit on The Ridge is admirable but ultimately it falls a bit short, and it’s clear that in its attempts to be a Stetson album minus Stetson, Neufeld does reveal several places where his absence is sorely missed.
The over-reliance on violin is probably the biggest part of that – for all its beauty and for all of Neufeld’s undeniable skill, the instrument doesn’t have the timbral versatility that Stetson’s saxophone does, and throughout this album’s length the sounds of violin drone can become a bit dull. What she does to do replace it is make her vocals more prominent, which gets a lot of bonus points for me. One of the problems I had with Never Were the Way She Was, and Stetson’s previous albums before that, was that they try too hard to be simply sonic experiments and not songs. Many of his pieces are fascinating from an academic and production perspective, but outside of the initial facts of the songs performance, the actual material falls flat. I said that vocals and more song-based structures (with the same complex arrangements and timbres backing them), could save his albums from boredom, and that is pretty much exactly what Neufeld has done with The Ridge.
Her vocals feature prominently on a handful of tracks here, and even taking semi-lead in a song like “We’ve Got a Lot”. It adds an extra layer to the composition of the pieces but also takes a lot of the strain off the violin, which could easily push towards repetitive and irritating if left on its own. The vocals, along with the drums, take influence more from contemporary music than the classical violin arrangements, with Neufeld’s smooth ambient croon being not dissimilar from the female vocalists that are prominent in dream pop and shoegaze. “They All Came Down” is just an interlude, but you could almost imagine it being on an indie pop album, if it weren’t for the violin drones in the background that are far above most indie groups. A couple of moments here do remind me of why sometimes I found Stetson a bit dry, most notably the empty and repetitive “The Glow” which loops a pretty uninteresting melody far beyond its welcome, and I do think the addition of vocals in many tracks here allows the album to avoid the dryer sections more often.
Naturally, with the lack of saxophone and prominence of violin, The Ridge could very nearly fall into the ultimately negative category of “modern classical music”, a pile reserved for the dullest of symphonies and the most avant-garde of experimental pieces. But there is so much more to this than just classical music – the influences from electronic, ambient and drone music are spectacular and realised, and Neufeld brilliantly avoids the dull and lifeless traits of those genres in favour of some brighter moments. Ultimately this has many of the same problems I’ve had with Stetson’s albums – over-reliance on production gimmicks and a lack of cohesive songs, and to add to that The Ridge lacks the range of sounds Stetson gets with the missing saxophone, but above all that it is still so impressive that there are artists making music that combines such a wide range of influences and sounds so experimental and inaccessible on paper, but in reality is music that pretty much anyone can enjoy.
Many could say that Neufeld straight-up attempting to make a Colin Stetson album by herself is a negative trait of this record but I don’t feel that way – this is simply a softer and more accessible take on his occasionally harsh and dissonant compositional style, and I honestly prefer it to all of his records bar the collaboration. The two of them will be performing on a reimagining of Henryk Mikołaj Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs later this year, and given their recent form I look forward to that release eagerly.