Album Review: HORSE The Band, Desperate Living

[from MadeLoud, October 25, 2009]

Their previous releases have earned HORSE the Band a number of compound genre descriptors – post-rock, Nintendocore, synthcore, vidmath – but their latest release, Desperate Living, smooths out some of the group’s rougher edges while still maintaining the spirit of adventure that gave their 8-bit heaviness its appeal in the first place. The old-school video game samples and savage riffs remain fully intact, but listeners expecting a more novel, Minibosses-esque approach to those cartridge jams will be sorely disappointed to learn that, in reality, save for some purposefully abrasive moments, HORSE the Band have simply created a highly listenable, highly compelling straight-up rock album.

Perhaps no track embodies this refined songcraft better than “Shapeshift,” which moves seamlessly from a staccato keyboard bassline and creeping guitar swells into a wild screamfest by singer Nathan Winneke, then yielding back into a high-gear synth figure and extreme percussion spoken word breakdown, out to an anthemic (yes, anthemic) emotional plea about dinosaurs backed by spooky harmony lines from fellow post-rocker (and Xiu Xiu frontman) Jamie Stewart. Other bands might not cover as much ground in an entire album; HORSE the Band get to it in under five minutes.

And it’s this ability to constantly shift gears that keeps Desperate Living from either losing momentum or veering off-course entirely. The clever, brutally heavy Nintendo riff-out comprising the middle section of “HORSE the Song” might not otherwise stand strongly on its own were it not for the playful, self-affirming hardcore that precedes it. Or take the sprawling, bluntly titled “Rape Escape,” moving from a drawn-out synth introduction into an extremely violent metalcore arrangement punctuated by blood-curdling scream samples, with guest pianist Valentina Lisitsa’s classical piano turn screaming, in its own way, just as loudly right back at the rest of the band.

It would be dismissive to call any album utilizing the Super Mario Bros. 60-second signifier “mature,” but by taking the schlocky elements that garnered them any attention in the first place and employing them less as gimmicks but as actual sonic underpinnings, the group has crafted an album challenging and entertaining, but above all else exciting, expertly walking the fine line between superficially complicated and existentially simple. How simple? Simple as the roar of the band’s title track: “HORSE the motherfucking band, motherfucker!”