Horse Lords – Interventions (2016)
A while back I came to a haunting realization. I hadn’t bought a Rock record in years. Despite the diversity of my taste, and the music that I tend to write about, my roots are in Punk (and later Indie-Rock). This is the musical foundation which defined who I became. It was my first love. Over the years I’ve drifted away. I still regularly sift through the endless stream of Indie releases in hope and habit, but the last time my ears sent me running to the shop is a fading memory. It’s not that my escalating years are pulling me away from the sounds of my youth. Those records are as fresh and exciting as the day I first heard them. Most contemporary realizations of “independent rock” just bore the shit out of me. More often than not they rehash the tried and tested, entering a landscape of normalcy which lacks ambition, rebellion, and operates as pastiche of well trod forms. Why invest in a record that you know before you’ve heard it? I want to be fucked with, confused, bent, and emerge reformed.
I can’t claim to be an expert. My finger fell from the pulse. It’s possible that I’ve missed what’s bubbling beneath the surface. I hope so. I still listen to a lot, lending my ear to hundreds of new bands a year in a desperate appeal to hear something new – something that will return the skip to my saddened heart.
When looking back at the twelve year old boy stumbling into Newbury Comics in Boston to buy his first Black Flag tape, or the one who moved to Chicago six years later (1996) and discovered a newly formed local scene that included Gastr del Sol, Don Caballero, Tortoise, U.S. Maple, Joan of Arc, Lake of Dracula, and countless others (none of which could be confused with another band from any era), I’m forced to face that the climate of independent music has changed far more than I have. As the majors have faded and failed, the independent market has absorbed a swath of ground it once held, and with it many of its worst practices. “Independent” has become a marketing strategy more than a philosophy. Bands that tread comfortable territory are championed, while the ambitious are once again vanquished to obscurity.
I’m still a believer. I look and hope, grasping the spirit that defined my youth – which is why a few weeks ago I woke early and found myself listening to the Horse Lords’ new record Interventions. I’ve been aware of the band for a while. They’ve had a good rep and put out their two previous records on labels that I respect and follow – Ehse Records, and NNA Tapes. Though I liked those records, they never fully broke free of kind of Mathy angularity well charted by Don Caballero (and countless bands since). I gave them a pass, but liked them enough to keep my eye on the band. Interventions was different. From the first note I found myself immersed and curious. My hands stopped tapping at the keyboard and I didn’t look up until the final track concluded. I was stunned. This hasn’t happened for a long time with a Rock record. Though my expectations are high, they’re not absurd. I don’t expect a band to completely redefine Rock & Roll. I want to be taken on an adventure, and this is what Interventions is. A sprawling journey into sound which offers insight into my own tastes and sense of self, flirting with territories I love, while forming a musical landscape entirely it own. Not only has the band matured since their last record, they have become artists.
I can’t stop listening to Interventions. That should be enough, but the record demands a great deal more. Though it maintains many of the Mathy elements which marked their previous releases, they’ve been pushed into an aggressive kind of Minimalism which is wholly transformative. It’s a record laden with references, hints, and clues, none of which are part of the legacies of Rock & Roll. They are embedded within the avant-garde, and Non-Western traditions. One of the first things I heard were modal guitar lines extending from Tuareg and Mauritanian traditions, but as the record began to evolve and sculpt itself into a whole, the bands relationship to avant-garde practice became more apparent. Guitar, saxophone, and modular synth bleed together, shifting into metronomic repetition, continuously fractured by polyrhyths, and pushing well past any expected duration. The album is immediately hypnotic and immersive, but the first clue to its conceit, and where it becomes really interesting, is in the third track Intervention I – a short generative piece of pure modular synthesis. As a free-standing work it doesn’t chart new territory, but it doesn’t feel like it set out to. It is what it states – an intervention, intended to break with the excepted paradigm of a Rock record, and give a clue to the arching concerns of the band. Across the record a series of these interventions form a structure, defining it, and created the love affair which I now recount. My favorite is Encounter II ／ Intervention II, which finds Andrew Bernstein clattering into a room with his saxophone before entering into a squawking, repetitive improvisation, overtaken by a drone which bleeds seamlessly into the next track Time Slip. Intervention III is an equally brilliant and open solo guitar improvisation by Owen Gardner which is undermined by Max Eilbacher’s gritty modular synthesis, once again breathing risk and unpredictability into the album’s structure, before issuing into the Mauritanian inspired lines of Bending to the Lash. The record concludes with one of my favorite moments, the track Never Ended. It seems no accident, when trying to leave the listener a clue into their conceit, the band exits with a short grinding tape collage, briefly hinting at Steve Reich’s Come Out, before moving into the more open structures of Musique Concrete. It’s perfect. Rather than pandering to expectations, they leave us with a challenge, and me with anxiousness for what comes next.
The fact that Interventions is a great record almost doesn’t matter. It’s a confrontation with a band who has worked their ass in order to break free of well defined territories, embarking on risk, experiment, and adventure. It is a reminder of what’s great about Rock & Roll, and music as a whole. By forging the relationships it does, in the way that it does, it enables a displacement of self, pushing us to face the inner workings of minds that don’t quite fit the mold, and reinforcing how exciting unmediated adventures in sound can be. You can check it out bellow, pick it up at the band’s Bandcamp page, via their label Northern Spy, or from your local record shop.