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Horseback - A Plague of Knowing

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Artist: Horseback

Album: A Plague of Knowing

Label: Relapse

Review date: Sep. 30, 2013

Chapel Hill, NC’s Horseback – the brainchild of vocalist/guitarist Jenks Miller – has been busy these last few years. After the expansive trance of their debut, their terse full-lengths have featured an interesting amalgam of black metal textures and vocals, Rhodes and shimmering guitar drones, and pattering mid-tempo grooves. Since repetition is their medium, and hypnogogy the goal, it’s fair to say they trade more in atmospheres than in tunes conventionally understood.

The three-disc, odds and sods release A Plague of Knowing exemplifies that, in mostly engaging ways. This is not to say that these performances (24 of them here, from the miniature to the truly epic) lack chordal movement or something approximating licks (just listen to the solemn lines on pieces like the wine-dark “On the Eclipse”), but these are in the service of their context at all times. This aesthetic is what connects the often disparate material (collected from a variety of limited releases that Horseback have snuck out) spread across these three discs, some of which you can easily imagine being tucked away in one of Miller’s other projects, from the twangy Mount Mariah to his lonely droning solo material.

It’s tough to deny that the very strongest material here is the stuff that sounds most like their full-lengths. Particular highlights in this zone were the menacing “Thee Cult of Henry Flynt” (with buried electronic voices and a hive of energy that makes it sound as if it’s crumbling within), the compelling “North Star Struck (Plagued Version)” (with its engaging contrast between limpid keys, chiming guitars, and squalling noise), and the 20-minute live version of “Impale Golden Horn.” Long pieces like this one and the 40-minute title track are like late 1980s Sonic Youth in a sense: broken circuit pastoral ascending into atomized bliss. And something of the long, unfurling “Heathen Earth” manages – despite some textural false starts – to sound very specifically like Sister in its guitar shapes and tones, and seductive tattoo. All of which is to say that Horseback shows off a bit more range in color and idiom here than elsewhere, too.

Not all of it works, by any stretch. In places they go to straight noise – the crackling “Murdered,” which could be an early Wolf Eyes outtake, or the buzzing, pulseless latter section of “High Ashen Slab” – and things sound a bit tentative. They delve into honest-to-goodness song form on live take on “TV Eye” (pretty forgettable) and two versions “Do You Have a True Feeling” (which sounds ready for Mount Moriah, but which they inexplicably smother in 1980s electro, something also heard on “Recite” and “Stolen Fire”). I reckon we’re supposed to find meaning in the contrast between these analog settings and Miller’s creepy, disaffected vocals, but these pieces seemed throwaway to me (sincerity notwithstanding). And there are several inessential tracks here that are genuinely notebook sketches: the percussive jam “Retribution,” the backporch redolence of “Clattering Into Aggregators,” and the horror movie synths of “Luciferian Theme.” It’s to the band’s credit that they survive these missteps, and that some of their other brevities – from the pastoral to sawing metal – come across quite well. Though this release is bloated and sometimes inconsistent, Horseback remains a distinctive, at times even bewitching band.

By Jason Bivins

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