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Album Of The Week

Uncommon Pleasures: New Horse Lords Reviewed
The Quietus , March 12th, 2020 10:07

The Common Task, the latest album by Baltimore four-piece Horse Lords is a full-on work out for the attention

A couple of years ago, I could easily listen to long, challenging pieces of music. I could have bored you rigid on why Tomoko Mukaiyama is better than Meredith Monk, and no, Okkyung Lee is not just noise, she’s the saviour of contemporary cello music! Then I got a job that requires me to spend a lot of time going through policy documents with a pink highlighter and thinking about business rates, and my appetite for ‘difficult’ music waned. You need time and thinking space and – crucially – discipline to engage with a big and cerebral piece of music. I’m too busy listening to Kim Petras and watching Love Island. I knew I’d completely re-wired my brain onto a diet of two-minute pop bops and bikini bodies when I went to see Phillip Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts and promptly fell asleep, dribbling gently, during the first twenty minutes of the four-hour performance. I left during the interval to get a Snickers. I did not go back.

I touch on Glass because before I destroyed my capacity to enjoy anything longer or more complex than an Instagram live story, I enjoyed Horse Lords for the same reasons I love Glass. You can basically lie on your bed and listen to Glassworks and it conjures up such elegant, supple layers of sound that you can happily loll about, catatonically dreaming of beautiful mossy-greens and blues, savouring the minimal precision of the piano and its overall shimmering gorgeousness. I think that Horse Lords’ earlier albums – specifically Interventions – have a similar structural control and I always enjoyed them for that reason, even if they don’t have the same overall radiant lusciousness of Glass. And of course they don’t. The sound is completely different. But the common structural thread is there, even if they’re cut out for different occasions: Phillip Glass for dreaming, Horse Lords for dancing.

Unlike some of their earlier work (I’m looking at you, Mixtape IV, B-side) this album feels more coherent, more unified. After indulging myself on one too many ABBA mega-mixes (sorry, I can’t help it, I like to think about my ex-girlfriend and discreetly weep on the rowing machine whilst listening to ‘SOS’) it was gratifying to engage properly with an album that demands to be listened to in its totality, not just as a series of singles. I’m conscious of the fact that I would never, ever, think “Oh, the first two concertos on Sea Pictures bore me rigid, I’ll skip to track 10, where Janet Baker starts absolutely belting it in the most spectacularly operatic fashion.” I would never cut to the crescendo within ‘classical’ music because that’s not how it works, frankly. So why don’t I show the same respect elsewhere?

The Common Task does deserve a proper, all-in-one-go listen. It’s supremely well-paced, and to appreciate that it needs to be worked through in one, glorious sitting. Well, not a sitting. The album has a liveliness and tempo that lends itself to running, dancing, speeding joyfully. The Common Task opens with ‘Fanfare for an Effective Freedom’, which feels like four concurrent tracks in unison, ripplingly overlaid against one another and resulting in a building, structured, wall of rhythm. This is really not like any other guitar music. Guitarist Owen Gardiner has lavishly praised krautrock band Neu! in the past, and you can see their shadow here and there – the punchy, disciplined minimalism, the gaps in sound and then tight, woven hits of noise. ‘Against Gravity’ smacks of ‘Super 78’, for anyone looking for some immediate connective tissue between the two bands.

Beyond Neu! there are a pleasingly wide range of influences to chew on. ‘The Radiant City’ is a stark, bagpipe-heavy palette cleanser, blaring and humming and searing before segueing into ‘People’s Park’ – a reggaeton-style beat with rippling, arpeggio-style guitar and bright, sparse percussion. It’s a track with warmth, for dancing to. It’s straightforwardly funky. I doubt Horse Lords would thank me for this (I understand they have some very worthy and utopian ideals), but some of the tiny, oscillating movements of sound, and obvious, agonised focus on form put me in mind of my own personal hell: Pilates. However, I can’t vouch for whether or not the band routinely attend or were influenced by Pilates classes. If they have any principles they will address this in their next interview. If they don’t, we will all die ignorant.

The big pay-off is the final track, ‘Integral Accident’. A sprawling, nineteen-minute finisher, it initially feels like a huge departure from the album’s overall direction. Where all other tracks start with a clear, authoritative blare, ‘Integral Accident’ opens amid the slow clutter of background noise, moving into the ache of violin cut with impossibly high female vocals, a sporadic, aria-style scream. It hots up over the course of the B-side into a frenetic, multi-layered piece of music, drawing on the sound and structure of previous tracks and weaving them to a droning, controlled crescendo. It starts feeling completely unexpected and finishes making perfect sense.

It would be lazy to call this a ‘difficult’ album, because it’s not. It’s a fun and thoughtful piece of music, and I got more and more out of it with each listen – you just have to give it time and respect. There is no ‘filler’ on The Common Task – it’s five perfectly-considered, tightly-honed tracks. Even if – like me – you sleep in a Madonna t-shirt, and think that Throbbing Gristle is something you pull out of the undercarriage of a roast chicken, you will likely enjoy this controlled yet expansive record. The Common Task could be a common pleasure.