Much of the past decade in metal has been spent finding ways to hybridize heavy music with unlikely outside styles, techniques or aesthetics. This has been particularly true of black metal, which now only occasionally resembles the hellish Viking marches of Bathory. Satan and fascism can only be trotted out so many times before a once-dangerous genre grows stale, and when a band like Finland’s Circle of Ouroboros blast-beats their way through lo-fi post-punk, or New York’s Castevet ties a ten-ton weight to some `90s-style post-hardcore, something more novel is born. Chapel Hill, N.C.’s Horseback has found some even less likely stylistic bedfellows to couple with black metal, namely post-rock and dusty Americana. And, contrary to the logic of it all, it works.
To get something out of the way, Horseback is more of a post-rock band than a metal band. The group’s songs don’t so much ignite with relentless fury as they smolder, smoke and cinder, slowly building up a dense earthy head of Americana-informed hallucinations made all the more disquieting via Jenks Miller’s menacing rasp. The band’s new album, Half Blood, is more Spiderland or Young Team than De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, but in its own strangely spacious, swirling way, there’s just as much evil lining its gothic, rural clouds.
Half Blood, first and foremost, is about atmosphere. Heaviness is a part of that atmosphere, as is doom, gloom, mystery, terror, depression, magic and hallucination, but all the same, the ambience is at least as big a part of the equation as songwriting, if not more so. This, in a way, is what makes Horseback so interesting. Certainly, the songs are good — “Mithras,” “Ahriman” and “Arjuna” follow similar progressions of slow-burning guitar riffs, a generous but not overbearing touch of trippy effects, Miller’s nigh-black metal croak, and some rustic twang to take a little of the polish off around the edges, consistently adding up to an intriguingly haunting listen.
Where Horseback goes from there is simultaneously weirder and more captivating. Essentially, the album is half ambient, beginning with the horror-movie eeriness of “Inheritance (The Changeling)” and progressing through the three-part opus, “Hallucigenia.” It takes a full 22 minutes to travel through the slowly moving, gradually escalating chills of “Hallucigenia,” but it’s always going somewhere, beautiful and strange, its 12-minute closing epic finishing Horseback’s bewildering, disorienting journey with a big, buzzing drone, and lots of gorgeous guitar treatments. At this point, whatever metal characteristics Horseback displayed prior essentially disappear under the strangely joyous and trippy groove that takes over. They almost sound like an entirely different band, really, but it still makes sense in the context of the album, carrying out a vision of metal as an expression of abstraction and almost spiritual beauty, rather than one of aesthetic facsimile.
Stream: Horseback – “Mithras”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.