By Rob Hughes
The music of Horseback should collapse under the weight of its audacity, yet on Half Blood it breathes and moves in fascinating, highly listenable ways. Horseback is its own multifaceted sound world, drawing from different genres and eras from, say, 1970 to the present. It incorporates black metal, electronic, noise, ambient, Americana, post-rock, and god knows what else. It sounds like a recipe for a pretentious disaster, but Horseback’s particular musical hybrid attains a purity all its own.
Jenks Miller is Horseback, pretty much—multi-instrumentalist, composer, and vocalist — steering Horseback wherever he wants it to go. Half Blood finds Horseback in “rock band” mode, as Miller himself puts it, with drummer John Crouch (from 2010’s The Invisible Mountain) and bassist Nick Peterson, although over the course of the album Miller offers a bit of everything that Horseback has explored thus far. This is their third Relapse release, after The Invisible Mountain and The Gorgon Tongue compilation in 2011. Various splits, vinyl, and cassette releases on other labels make up the rest of the discography.
Half Blood is a two-part journey. The first 20 minutes features the hard-hitting stuff, in relatively compact chunks compared to The Invisible Mountain. A song like “Mithras,” based around a single punchy bass line, works due to its careful arrangement. Guitars buzz and howl while notes on electric piano dart around beneath Miller’s rasping vocals, creating an abrasive tranquility that’s kind of a metalized counterpart to Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way. The wiry bass guitar and airy, well-recorded drums on “Ahriman” and “Arjuna” recall the tense workouts of Slint or Shellac. The more abstract “Inheritance (The Changeling)” evokes dawn light illuminating a room, revealing the aftermath of some terrible act the night before. Drones, noise, and some sparse piano deftly illustrate the horror.
The album’s second half comprises the three-part “Hallucigenia” cycle, taking us deep into the Precambrian seas (or maybe Germany in its kosmische heyday). Part I, “Hermetic Gifts” provides a tranquil starting point before the synth rumbles and ominously chiming guitar of “II: Hermetic Junk” take over. Things unspool completely on the endless “Tomorrow Never Knows” drone of “III: The Emerald Tablet,” underscored with an insistent throb that sits so low in the mix that you feel it like your own pulse.
Based on The Invisible Mountain and now Half Blood, Horseback has mastered the art of crafting a proper album. The first half has its feet in the dirt, the second half has its eyes on the stars. It manages to cover a lot of stylistic territory, yet it’s a cohesive collection and an effortless listen from start to finish. It starts in one place and ends up somewhere completely different, and you were too busy enjoying the scenery to notice how it got there.