- American band Horse Lords are not simple to characterise. They have guitar and drums and closely enough resemble rock music, though their long instrumental songs are not exactly what you usually hear on the radio. They land somewhere in the intersection between minimalism, math rock and music theory nerdism.
That description probably doesn’t make it sound very fun, and it’s certainly not easy listening. The title of their 5th album Comradely Objects is a reference to Russian Constructivism – once again, avant garde art and communist Russia are not the usual touchstones for rock’n’roll.
Yet Horse Lords are capable of moments of joyous, danceable music. The best example on Comradely Objects is Mess Mend, a truly wonderful slice of organised chaos full of clattering polyrhythms and musical in-jokes. It starts off with piano chords like 90’s house music, followed by guitar lines that remarkably resemble hillbilly banjo plucking. Then there’s some angular post punk riffing that melts back in 90’s techno bleeps – all that over the top of a flurry of intertwining rhythms and done in four minutes. Mess Men recalls People’s Park off Horse Lords last album The Common Task, a short and danceable experiment in polyrhythms which you might say is the most accessible side of their music.
Opening track Zero Degree Machine reflects a bit of the West African influence that Horse Lords have always had – like a robotic Tinariwen. May Brigade recalls free jazz with its skronky saxophone solo; and then the second half of the album is very krautrock influenced, full of drones and insistent rhythms.
That’s a very basic overview of the record – there’s more than that going on, including something called just intonation tuning, which Horse Lords love but flies over my head as well as probably most listeners. I personally would have appreciated more tunes like the ecstatic polyphony of Mess Mend, but I do suspect Horse Lords are not very inclined to be predictable or easy to digest.
Beyond the sounds, the other question is do Horse Lords live up to the Constructivist vision they allude to in the album title – where “our things in our hands must be equals and comrades”. It’s a worthwhile question at a time when music seems more disposable than ever. The constructivists believed that art should be part of the material transformation of everyday life, though their avant garde visions were replaced by the sentimentality of Socialist Realism as the excitement of revolution became the mundanity and paranoia of Stalinism.
Music is an ephemeral medium undoubtedly, though there are ways of interacting with it that engage the world around us more than the audio wallpaper and regurgitated cliches of so much pop music. Horse Lords’ complex playing is not exactly likely to engage the masses, but I will say that their dedication to exploring the possibilities of the simplistic (in their one chord drones) and the complex (intertwining polyrhythms) bring our attention to the physical elements of music more than most. Maybe if we look beyond the shiny veneer of music industry marketing we see new possibilities of sound. Who knows? Maybe it’s not too late to do the same with everyday life in consumer capitalism.
- Andy Paine.