Black Horses by Adam Franklin and Bolts of Melody is a great album, though it’s difficult to explain why. Here, as they say, goes nothing.
Franklin is working with a sound that he mastered with his previous (and hence resurrected) band, Swervedriver. While other gazey bands of the UK ‘90s scene like the Boo Radleys, the Verve and the Catherine Wheel started off weird and spacey but ended up with a less abstract pop sound, Swervedriver were fixed to the floor from beginning to end. This isn’t to say they didn’t grow or develop or, inversely, that they were superior to their peers. Their path was just straighter and that sense of consistency seeped into Franklin’s solo career. Encountering a new album from Adam Franklin is a bit like meeting up with an old and reliable friend who’s sporting a different haircut each time. And if it’s possible to be in complete awe of a friend’s haircut, Black Horses is the style fit for that awe.
If you spend enough time with Black Horses, you’ll notice some subtle patterns emerging. It’s not really what anybody would call a “concept” album since said concepts are easier to spot in pop music than the threads that run through Black Horses. The press release reveals that the songs use “a four-note melody that is woven throughout Black Horses,” though there is more at work. For instance, many songs use and reuse an alternating figure of minor-chord/major-chord while using the same root. These notes and chords are buried so deep in the fabric of Adam Franklin’s songs that there’s hardly a chance they will register on the first, second or possibly third listen. But after that, you’ll be glad you invested the time. Honestly, four notes rarely feel this rewarding.
The strength of Adam Franklin’s songs is the key that unlocks the sound. While lesser bands and/or weaker songwriters would probably have difficulty giving recurring themes enough variation to hold your interest, the Bolts of Melody are fortunately armed with better songs. Black Horses is the sound of modern technology taking on an organic life-form, music that drips all too naturally to qualify as “songwriting”. Unsurprisingly, Franklin’s voice is not front and center. The melody lines he sings can be so weird but you might never know it if you weren’t trying to make out the lyrics. “I used to live for music / Harmony motion could capture my soul.” And what an odd harmony he takes on…but it feels like it can’t unfold in any other way. The same motif is slowed down for “I Used to Sleep for a Thousand Years”, acting as a reprise five tracks later. The full band touch doesn’t approach anything near homogenous, though an acoustic ballad coupled with a cello and a violin certainly doesn’t hurt. “Asha” and “Boom!” are brain-worms of tremendous power, etching orbits into your brain whether you like it or not. Their chords and melodies may not match anything you may associate as “catchy”, but the elements are all there, waiting for you to excavate them. And a nicely distorted cascading guitar lick never repelled any potential listeners (see instrumental “Coda Code”).
I’ve spent more time with Black Horses than I’ve ever spent with any release in Adam Franklin’s past, partly because I’m supposed to and partly because the music is so indescribably irresistible. It’s a perfect example of taking unorthodox musical structures, toying with them, making them your own, and dishing them back out as something to behold. Track three is named “I Used to Live for Music”, so just imagine what Franklin can accomplish if he truly lived for it once again. But did he ever truly stop? Black Horses answers with a resounding “no”.