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Running Free

Horse Lords push Krautrock in adventurous new directions

Photo: M.C. Schmidt, License: N/A

M.C. Schmidt

Horse Lords (From left): Owen Gardner, Max Eilbacher, Sam Haberman, and Andrew Bernstein

More than a full minute of bass-guitar toggling introduces “Wildcat Strike,” the side-long lead track on local instrumental quartet Horse Lords’ self-titled debut on Baltimore-based Ehse Records. It’s a cyclical throb that projects a slideshow on the brain. Five seconds in, it sucggests the personal-space invasion that opens “Helen Forsdale,” the no-wave jolt by ’70s noise aficionados Mars, but that song explodes into restless anxiety almost immediately. Horse Lords bassist, Max Eilbacher, instead maintains the wobble a bit before he starts to alter it ever so slightly 20 seconds in. Different overtones seep into the pulse, producing an echo chamber between the ears that recalls the fade-to-black soundtrack of a Freon inhale, planting roots and sprouting into a pounding headache as the legs lower the body to the ground, back against the wall. Just before guitarist Owen Gardner and drummers Sam Haberman and Andrew Bernstein join in at the 75-second mark, what started out feeling like a sonic frontal assault has morphed into a rippling massage, seducing the ears to follow a hopping melody down any rhythmically twisty rabbit hole.

Patience isn’t a mere virtue for Horse Lords; it’s integral to the group’s long-form dynamic. Feeling out a groove takes time. Understanding anything—a melody, a rhythm, a musical motif, a belief system—takes time. Fast only reaches the end sooner. And Horse Lords, an instrumental-rock band in the process of discovering if it can evolve into something else, is only two years into its journey. Already, they’ve earned fans among their peers: When City Paper asked local artists who their favorite musicians were for the Big Music Issue, Dan Deacon, Wye Oak, and Celebration all name-checked them.

But they’re in no rush. “Wildcat Strike” and “Who Taught You to Hate Yourself,” the two tracks that make up Horse Lords, run 15:53 and 21:41 respectively—which isn’t surprising, considering that Bernstein, Gardner, and Eilbacher played in Teeth Mountain, the short-lived, large ensemble of chiefly Goucher College alumni who drank deep of a bubbling cocktail of folk-music timbres and drumming intoxicants, in search of a land where every circle has its end.

Early Horse Lords live sets often featured one cut that clocked in around the 20-minute mark. “We would write a song and that would be the set for the show,” Bernstein says of the group’s salad days. He’s sitting at an outdoor table at a Charles Village coffee haunt with his bandmates, recalling the group’s formation in the summer of 2010, when Lexie Mountain asked Gardner if he wanted to open for Crazy Dreams Band, and when Gardner impishly thought it’d be fun to put together a “rock” band (quotation marks intentional). He promptly filed the idea away until the gig’s date approached, when he reached out to Needlegun’s Eilbacher, who was jamming with ex-Pleasure Wizard bassist Haberman at the time. Sure, sure, they said, let’s do something, and the first Horse Lords show featured the trio playing a version of 1970s German group Can’s slinking groove “Halleluwah.”

“I don’t know if you could say we played that,” Gardner qualifies of that debut. “We played a part of that, basically.”

The choice was pragmatic—it was a song all three were familiar with—but it also began tracing the musical map the band was going to explore. That first show was “super-minimal,” Eilbacher recalls. “It was like [Tony] Conrad/Faust piece but playing a Can structure.” Faust, Can, Tony Conrad—a pair of seminal Krautrock bands and an American minimalist anecdotally responsible for naming the Velvet Underground: These are a few signposts dotting Horse Lords’ odyssey, bands that looked outside commercial rock music and conventional Western rhythms.

Bernstein caught the trio’s second or third show ever, at the Bank, and came on as a second percussionist and saxophonist. Soon they were writing their own extended instrumental workouts.

“Maybe the true meat of the song would be 12 minutes or so and then we would try to draw that out for 20 minutes to fill a set,” Bernstein says. “We’ve gotten better at whittling it down, to have improvisation and be able to jam on parts, but not draw it out unintentionally just because we need to fill space. But I like the long form better than a three-minute song. It’s hard to convey what we’re trying to do in that kind of time.”

“Wildcat Strike” chugs along for more than four minutes after Eilbacher’s opening bass work, the band swimming through an interlocking series of figures between the bassist, guitar, and the two beat-keepers. Eilbacher seems to maintain a steady throb, but it wiggles around here and there, a ping-pong ball vertically suspended by blown air. Haberman and Bernstein play off each other, less in antagonistic fight to control the tempo—the group says Haberman primarily provides the cues—but they accentuate each other through contrast, the way spicy mustard spotlights a Granny Smith apple’s tart sweetness in a veggie sandwich. Gardner’s guitar darts all over the place, a series of picked staccato notes forming a melodic line that doubles back on itself, like a spy trying to shake a tail.

Just before the 5:44 mark, Haberman hammers out a martial snare fill and pushes his tempo as everybody moves the musical chairs around him: Eilbacher slows his bass line; Bernstein fills the gaps around Haberman’s pulse with percussive textures and cowbell punctuations; And Gardner practically hits a flowering starbust of a power chord—or, at least, what has the mood-shifting oomph of a power chord. Gardner refretted both his guitar and Eilbacher’s bass to “just intonation” (as opposed to the Western music standard of 12-tone equal temperament), one of those terms that means something to people who play music and is just really fun to type to music writers. It’s an indication of the relationship between the notes sounded by the strings when they vibrate, but for this discussion it’s worth noting that it’s the guitar tuning sometimes used by contemporary composers such as Terry Riley and Lou Harrison, musical minds who liked to explore the music and meters of other cultures.

That segue is one of many complicated moments that makes up “Wildcat Strike” and Horse Lords’ music in general, but recognizing all the moving parts only comes after sitting down with headphones and abusing the rewind button. When heard, it’s a surging transition in a song riddled with grooves that make the body buzz.

“A lot of the songs are quite difficult,” Gardner acknowledges. “I don’t know if it comes across.”

Assured that it does, the band members exchange a few looks. “We’re always stopping ourselves and saying, ‘Wait, is this math rock?’” Eilbacher says, prompting a few laughs from the others. “We don’t want to play math rock. ‘Should we just put a 4/4 [rhythm] there?’”

It’s a joke but a sincere sentiment. Apparently, at some point between when Richmond, Va.’s mighty Breadwinner unleashed a hair-parting debut 7-inch in 1990 and the present, “math rock” has become somewhat anathemetic, no doubt due in part to the abuse of expressions like “mixed-time signatures” becoming the stand-in for “this doesn’t sound easy to play, so it must be good even though its abrupt rhythmic shifts might cause whiplash.” There’s nothing wrong with neck-snapping turns, but too much of it puts technical showmanship above pleasure, as narcissistic and suicidal in music as it is in kissing.

“We try to keep it funky and driving enough so that it’s not getting complex just for complexity’s sake,” Bernstein says. “We like the complexity but we want to feel it too, want it to sound good.”

What gets lost in the road from Breadwinner to, say, Chicago’s Piglet is that the line separating mid-’90s math rock from mid-’90s post-rock was a very fine one, and no matter how prog-rock indulgent Tortoise became, seeing that band live in 1993 or ’94 was a tonic to the commercial saturation of everything trying to smell like teen spirit. The emergence of post/math rock bands (Tortoise, Slint, Rodan, Don Caballero, Storm and Stress, etc.) is typically discussed as a musical evolution, an expansion from punk/rock, fueled by other sounds. That’s an expeditionary process those bands share with the Krautrock musicians, who married psych and garage rock with everything under the sun. Those searches were also somewhat instigated by trying to get away from what countercultural music had become: conventional soundtracks to advertising and mass-culture ennui.

The Beatles could ride psychedelia to chart-topping commercial success in the late 1960s, while “punk” could be used to sell cars and cruises in the early 1990s. Why not try to make something that’s a bit more difficult to turn into advertising—especially today, when only major labels move units and everybody sells their online selves through social media?

“I guess, for me, it’s a pretty attractive nexus of people interested in radical music and radical politics and just in general imagining a new society, I guess,” Gardner says of his affinity for Krautrock. “But also there’s sort of a stupid stoner element to it that I find kind of attractive. I don’t know. I think it’s interesting. Imagining that sort of utopian context in which to make art is sort of what’s attractive to me.”

Perhaps Horse Lords is trying to create their idealized context. They’re just still figuring out what it might be. Right now it’s a band with an impressive live show, whose sound is nicely documented on its debut album. They’re currently working on a split release with Hume, where each band is collaborating with local saxophonist John Berndt, and there’s a fall tour planned for October.

After that, it’s wait-and-see. “I feel like we have developed since [recording the album] but haven’t developed in a radical way,” Gardner says. “It’s still working with the same sort of concerns that are on the record now. My goal, at least ultimately, even though it started self-consciously as a rock band, I would like to . . . ” and then he trails off.

“Dissolve it?” Eilbacher asks.

“Transcend the rock band?” Bernstein adds?

“Maybe,” Gardner concedes. “But it’s still a rock band right now.”

Horse Lords plays ScapeScape Aug. 30-Sept. 2 with a slew of other bands and a record release show Sept. 8 at the Current Gallery.

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