One look at the album cover for Horseback’s latest offering Dead Ringers tells you all you need to know about what’s in store. It is familiar yet off-kilter, odd, and, with a ten-legged horse, kind of hypnotic. It is cool, weird, boring, and disturbing all at once.
Jenks Miller, the brain behind the one-man group, has released an intriguing but ultimately unfulfilling record. I’ve listened to Dead Ringers ten times in the last two weeks, and I still haven’t put my thumb on exactly how good or bad it is.
Horseback have been putting out music since 2007, and have most often been classified as a blend of black and post-metal. Minimalist, drone-like songs with harsh black metal vocals were the norm. But things change on Dead Ringers. Miller’s vocals are clean throughout, and entirely unengaging. Guitars are wispy and airy, and add to the already laid-back feel of the album, which is established with slow, retro-sounding drum tracks and synth patches.
The music here is uneven. Songs such as “Shape Of The One Thing” and “A Bolt From Blue” are trancelike with a bit of a Nine Inch Nails-lite quality to them, driven by drum loops and synths from the ’80s. Miller’s clean vocals add to the hypnotic nature of the tracks. These songs are well-arranged and engaging. On the other end of the spectrum we have “The Cord Itself,” an eight minute exercise in ambient sounds, and “Larkspur,” a slow number featuring Miller reciting the names of multitudes of flowers.
Album closer “Descended From The Crown” is the longest song here, clocking in at nearly 17 minutes, and is the peak of self-indulgence, with sparse guitar and bass work accentuated by a lot of delay and spacey synth patches.
This isn’t really heavy music per se. Sure, there is a rash of feedback to open the album’s first song, “Modern Pull,” and “In And Out Of Form” has some pretty rote hard rock guitar chords, but other than that, we are listening to a laid back, at times captivating but at other times throwaway record of shoegaze, post-rock, chilled-out meandering. It’s a bit like listening to OSI on Quaaludes.
The problem with being in a one man band is that there is nobody telling you what’s good and what isn’t. Miller’s approach on Dead Ringers is very minimalist and retro. It fits with the shoegaze modus operandi, but it isn’t all that captivating. The end result is more self-indulgent than engaging.
(released August 12, 2016 on Relapse Records)