Some acts seemingly live to defy classification. In 2010 when Horseback came galloping out of the North Carolina hills with their Relapse Records debut, The Invisible Mountain, in hand it helped usher in the whole “blackened shoegaze” movement that would become not only the taste of choice for quite a few metal fans (and fringe metal hipsters), but also the eye of Hurricane Ire perpetrated by metal purists the world over. But Horseback were never part of a ‘scene’ per se as they drove down the darkened back roads of the metal landscape with the top down and headlights off. So it should come as no surprise that four years after their last full-length album Horseback mastermind, Jenks Miller, has returned with an album that takes the Horseback sound even further to the edge of the musical abyss, and even further away from their metal roots.
With the aforementioned The Invisible Mountain and follow-up album, Half Blood, (as well as a handful of splits and reissue releases) Horseback took the darkest depths of black metal and melded it with copious amounts of sonic acid to form an almost nightmare-inducing barrage of blackened wavelengths. On newest album, Dead Ringers, Horseback still exists in a sort of dreamlike vision, yet one that tends to sooth more than provoke any type of angst. For starters, gone are the amazingly harsh vocals that sounded like someone successfully gargling broken glass. They’ve been replaced with Miller’s stoic vocal delivery, which has its own slightly off-putting effect when paired with the sonic psychedelics that lie beneath.
What is also new on this album is the adventurous sense of experimentation that acts as the lynch pin for the entire thing. While the opening minute or so of album opener, “Modern Pull,” gives the impression that maybe you might actually be on familiar terrain, Miller’s clean vocals and the almost dance-able beat underneath it will set that road map in your mind on fire. You’re not in Kansas anymore Toto. By the time the Eastern-influenced guitar riff starts snaking its way into your brain it’s more than obvious that this will be one of the more unique listening experiences you’ll have this year.
The rest of the album delivers on that promise with aplomb. Elements of dark wave, synth pop, and psych rock are all woven into a technicolor blanket you can wrap yourself up in on long winter nights. There is a certain warmth here, yet right outside your window there is consistently darkness and the dangers hidden within. Miller does an exceptional job, especially on tracks like “Shape Of The One Thing” and “The Cord Itself,” to invite wickedness to the party in various forms, yet keep it at arms length, never getting too close for comfort (as it did so deliciously on previous efforts).
Horseback are part of a handful of bands that are forcing people to redefine what they classify as “metal” or at least forcing metalheads to take a longer look at bands that exist somewhere in the grey area between worlds. If you consider acts like Muscle and Marrow or Troller to fall somewhere along the metal pantheon then you probably will with this album as well. If you are more of a traditionalist and consider any or all acts like those mentioned to exist outside the boundaries then that’s probably where this album will live for you as well. Regardless of what you want to call it or how you want to classify it, Dead Ringers is an album you simply must experience at least once, and preferably multiple times.
Dead Ringers is out now via Relapse Records. You can experience and purchase the album through the Horseback Bandcamp page.