The music of Horse Lords – like all the best music – can be tough to categorize, but it’s also a study in contradictions. Their music contains elements of math rock, krautrock, free jazz, minimalism, and other styles that may be a hard pill for the average music fan to swallow. While those genres may bring to mind bespectacled musicologists hunched over inscrutable sheet music, or perhaps Berklee students creating their brand of brainy jam music during a break in classes, the band have found a way to make these intricate, puzzle-like compositions soar with an electrified intensity that’s uniquely engaging.
On their first album since 2016’s Interventions, Horse Lords (Andrew Bernstein on saxophone, Max Eilbacher on bass, Owen Gardner on guitar and Sam Haberman on drums) continue to ply an intricate style. It’s actually a variety of styles baked into one densely packed instrumental format. One of the pleasures of experiencing The Common Task is that each song lives in its self-contained universe. All five songs are uniquely composed, arranged, and performed. “Fanfare for Effective Freedom” begins with atonal, foreboding chords that pound into the ground like tent stakes before the rest of the song shuffles into the newly created shelter. Then it’s off to the races, as the song builds up intensity and the band locks into place. Engaging guitar figures, electronic squalls, metronome-precise drumming, and Steve Reich-ian phase-shifting are all stuffed into the opening epic before gracefully and suddenly stopping on a dime.
“Against Gravity” – the title of which may or may not be a nod to postmodern novelist Thomas Pynchon – keeps the momentum going, albeit in a more streamlined manner. It’s also the first opportunity on the album to show off Bernstein’s astonishing saxophone work, which blends in seamlessly with the knotty guitar, bass, and drum interplay. For all of the cacophony, odd tunings, and unusually chosen paths, the way that the band gets into such an airtight groove is a pure joy to hear.
“The Radiant City” is the first time on The Common Task where an outside musician is used, and it’s more than a mere guest spot. Duncan Moore’s bagpipes dominate the song and transform the tenor of the album, allowing the band to shift gears. It briefly transforms the album from breakneck mathematical jam-fest to a droning, futuristic Celtic meditation, the bagpipes meshing in an oddly satisfying manner with bits of electronic noodling. The album’s single “People’s Park” is perhaps the most accessible track on the album, as Gardner’s lead guitar dances joyously around the jubilant African rhythms. It’s easy to picture the crowd at a Horse Lords show bopping effortlessly in time with this exuberant track, even at the end when the percussion breakdown causes the song to collapse briefly under its weight.
The album’s centerpiece and the most ambitious song is the closer, “Integral Accident”, which – at 18 minutes and change – makes up the second side of the album’s vinyl format. Employing crowd chatter and lengthy bursts of droning in the first several minutes, the full band eventually moves in gradually, with violin, accordion, and bassoon adding more sonic layers, as well as the haunting, wordless vocalizing of Bonnie Lander. The musicians all take advantage of the song’s boundless run time by creating a slow, gradual build-up, starting almost tentatively, before eventually locking into a thick, multifaceted groove. Eventually, the musicians all fade away save for a sustained electronic whir that eventually shuts off, abruptly and without fanfare.
On The Common Task, Horse Lords packs a great deal of variety and a seemingly endless amount of possibilities into 41 minutes. It’s the sound of a group that is infinitely curious. This isn’t your uncle’s moody, downbeat krautrock – it’s a breathless celebration of the power of band dynamics.