By Quentin Gibeau (@Gibonobo)
I recently saw a Horse Lords set at Fields Fest at Camp Ramblewood in the Susquehanna River Valley. The band’s pulsing rhythms moved in a tessellated lockstep with their cyclical harmonies, mirroring the crowd’s state of tired satisfied ecstasy. All of this was the perfect backdrop to the majesty of the Susquehanna valley, where the festival took place. Horse Lords are a gem of a band; they live in a unique mystical valley amidst the landscape of modern music. They walk the line between outright experimental sound art, academic music theory, and conventional western rock and roll, retaining enough traits and hallmarks from each of these fields to appeal to listeners hailing from in-the-know musical communities, to those less initiated. The band feels familiar and alien at once, with an impressive effortlessness.
On Interventions, we hear the band finding new methods in song craft that fit solidly into the identity they have created, taking off from a clearer starting point than previous releases. The band has a tradition of operating within the bounds of their own brand of experimental language. Steeped in West African influenced guitar work, interlocking polyrhythms tow the line between traditional Indian, Arab, and Kraut(rock) beat structures, in addition to waves of microtones alongside the satisfying muscularity of Andrew Bernstein’s saxophone. Interventions does not change any of this formula and yet it does more with less, allowing the listener to hear more of the mechanics by breaking up the overall sound of the band into digestible chunks: here specifically shorter songs.
Previous outings have almost bragged with the bands stamina and presentation. In some interviews guitarist Owen Gartner describes that the band often writes and rehearses to the limits of their ability, cutting only what they find absolutely impossible to play. This shows on Interventions, as the record’s shorter pieces swagger with a confidence that allows the individual moments to maintain a discernible musical and thematic relationship with one another while not losing out on the any of the band’s satisfying chops. We hear this on the album’s opener, “Truthers.” While still settling in at a robust 6 minutes, the song shows off all of the aspects that you would want to hear when showing the band to someone who might like something less than twenty minutes long; rhythmic breakdowns, muscular bass, swirling stinging guitars and krautrock saxophone guide the song through a clear narrative without losing gas or the interest of the listener.
“Encounter I/Transfinite Flow” has a concrete opening with a stutter-stop danceable groove, that witnesses the band teasing decay, modulation, and the editing of the individual elements. Here Horse Lords unite the West African influences of their Ehse records roots with the song’s gradual decay into “Intervention I,” which exhibits a circuit-bent Casiotone version of the bands typical song construction, before adding a dose of whimsy. This is followed by the tonal intro to “Toward The Omega Point.” A baseline intro with a cowbell dalliance and subtle synth backbone make “Toward The Omega Point” a high point on this record, with its bass line octave jumps adorning the melody before a final minute of percussion breakdown relaxes into a satisfying chug.
This is completely suspended by the challenging, unnerving, and even creepy scene stealing sax wizardry of “Encounter II/Intervention II.” The listener’s neck hair will relax though, as “Time Slip” begins with a settled ethereal chord that exemplifies why music theorists (and the band) are interested in the use of Just Intonation, a smooth build and the mathematical perfection of the wavelengths. Here, as well as in other songs, we hear bassist Max Eilbacher flex the tinkering-with-live-sound of this album, and the interplay of the band’s 4 strong individual ingredients into a sound scape alchemy reminiscent of the band’s mix tape releases. “Intervention III” slows it down completely, focusing on Gartner’s fascinating guitar work. Having this sparse selection among the other pieces allows the listener to hear an almost distilled Horse Lords that sounds like the most post rock intro the band has done. The mostly solo guitar intro pushes the Apocalypse Now-sunset-through-the-blinds imagery into sitar like ringing tones, which joins Eilbacher’s synth embellishments, to decay further into alternating stereo static that verges into Autechre-esque tonal modulation. Horse Lords continue pushing and pulling these modulations for an experience akin to an eye-watering encounter with a potent hot pepper (this is especially true when listened to in good headphones).
The whole sequence of these three pieces hang together like a forgotten sound track to a Deadman-era Jarmusch film, exercising some comfortable existential dread before we settle back into the chug on “Bending To The Lash.” The bass righteously asserts itself to pull the listener into the kind of jam we usually expect, dissecting the song into smaller individual jams. The song centers on the bass riff, which gathers more intensity, weight, and fat tone before finally being enveloped into a staccato-kraut break down and whole note tonal pauses. Gartner’s guitar and Bernstein’s sax twist alternating circles around the locked in and building rhythm section until we finally surge back to a form of reality with “Never Ended.”
“Never Ended”’s sound collage is formed by sound from the street and recent protests, reminding us that while the band is vocally silent (except to say thank you at shows) the band philosophically hails from the baseline anti-establishment ethics present in Baltimore’s experimental music scene. This album comes across as Horse Lords’ own reflection of the past year in Baltimore, as well as an intervention exercise on 2016: a year that has included prominent police violence, uprisings, publicized high-tech wartime surveillance, problems caused by environmental racism, escalating murder rates and crumbling infrastructure. Interventions as a whole cuts at these tensions, stabbing at the paranoia of our political climate and the mainstreaming of conspiracy theory, (referenced in naming a song “Truthers”) and mirroring shared anxiety with harsh noise and discord. But like all of us in the woeful year of 2016, the quality of the album and band’s progression as artists exists almost to spite that existential dread, worry, and anxiety. On Interventions, Horse Lords show us that a gem in the turd pile of living in troubled times is all the occasional joy of good art.