“What if Mogwai were fronted by Jeff Walker from Carcass?” – Horseback‘s Half Blood, released earlier this year on Relapse, gets the belated MacDara treatment.
When two different children bear no relationship with one another, apart from sharing one common parent, that’s the definition of a half blood. And it makes an apt title for this third album (not counting split LPs and assorted releases) from North Carolinan experimental metal outfit Horseback. Started as a one-man recording project by Chapel Hill musician Jenks Miller in 2007, the recordings issued under the Horseback name are the results of his attempt to unite two different worlds in an image that doesn’t really resemble either.
My first impression boils down to an elevator pitch: What if Mogwai were fronted by Jeff Walker from Carcass? Half Blood’s opener ‘Mithras‘ wouldn’t sound out of place on any of the Scottish post-rock quintet’s recent albums, its straight-forward, muscular rhythm tinged with more than a hint of Americana in its twangy guitar line and colourings of organ vibrato. It’s that same Ennio Morricone, Spaghetti western vibe heard running through Earth‘s most recent output. But then come those vocals, like demonic growlings through an interdimensional portal or something.
It’s certainly a contrast, and it probably won’t work for some, but I can see where Miller is coming from in trying to marry two very different musical motifs that weirdly reflect one another, at least conceptually; the desolation of the western deserts, the open prairie, the awesome mountains that inspires much Americana-infused music being a fitting counterpart for the barren, inhospitable frostbitten wastelands oft conjured in Scandinavian black metal. It’s tapping into the same American Gothic darkness inhabited by Cormac McCarthy, as Miller himself freely admits.
Second track ‘Ahriman‘ is in the same vein sonically, but with some added boogie swing. And I’m surprised at how quickly I’ve got used to the vocals; they could almost as easily be the choked raspings of a septuagenarian cowboy on 60 a day as the howls of a corpse-painted lost soul from Norway. Other than that, there’s little raw black metal influence evident here, despite how other reviewers have attempted to cast Horseback in that gloomy light. Of course, just because you can’t hear it doesn’t mean it’s not there, but that’s also the point – there is none there to hear. It’s more about the feeling, rather than those audible signifiers, the buzzing guitars or the blastbeats.
That being said, the Horseback sound isn’t averse to a little blackened guitar buzzing as the mood shifts on ‘Inheritance (The Changeling)‘, where the psych-rock and rootsy aspects give way to static-damaged passages of ominous ambience. The effect is akin to two realities – order and chaos, perhaps – slipping in and out of phase, the fabric of the former ripping to allow the latter poke through.
The balls-out psych-rock gets another airing on ‘Arjuna‘, with its looping riffage and its wah-wah solo, and when Miller begins singing cleanly it’s almost as rattling as the record’s first few moments. Then ‘Hallucigenia‘, the three-part suite that comprises the album’s second half, kicks in – and we’re in entirely different territory than where we set off.
Part one, ‘Hermetic Gifts‘, drifts on a wave of high-pitched feedback and gently strummed chords. Miller’s demon vocalisations sounding disembodied here; like a malevolent spirit defeated in the corporeal realm, they fade away, not to be heard again.
The second part, ‘Spiritual Junk‘, rumbles and quakes under mournful Hammond organ and a martial tom beat, then transforms halfway through with a hypnotic repeating three-note riff that fades into a field shimmering, swirling noise. The third and final part, ‘The Emerald Tablet‘, is the longest track on the album at 12 minutes, and closes proceedings with a similarly hypnotic, repetitive raga, chaotic and blissful at the same time.
Half Blood is apparently a concept album inspired by the notion of the monomyth, with Miller describing the record as exploring the latter half of that idea – the rebirth of the hero “into a new understanding, a sort of wholeness”, as he puts it. It’s there in the songs titles referencing the monomythic figure Mithras whose story echoes that other great monomyth, Jesus. But it’s only in ‘Hallucigenia‘ that I can really perceive the theme through the music: the vanquishing of a haunted, haunting enemy and the end of old ways, forging a new beginning that’s both frightening and hopeful.