I Break Horses’ 2011 début Hearts was a perfect January album. All thrilling electric chills laced with beautiful blooming bouquets of blinding white light. It said “Made in Sweden” on the label and echoes of M83, Sigur Rós and the Knife may’ve spiraled through its crystal hallways but it felt more akin to slipping inside a dusty old wardrobe into the wintry widescreen wonder of Narnia. Wide-eyed, ‘Bambi-on-ice’ fragile and snowflake unique it was a peculiar curiosity beamed in from another dimension. But whereas Hearts was happy to bedazzle incandescently, Maria Lindén and Fredrik Balck’s newborn wants to breakout, scale the mountain and cross the Chiaroscuro, the path from the “lightest to the darkest”. It makes for a dizzying ride even if it does leave some of the mysterious majesty and romantic optimism of Hearts behind.
Chiaroscuro trips the ‘light’ fantastic mostly during its opening run. Intriguing opener “You Burn” breaks like the morning sun rising across a glacial plain, slowly melting away the night. Lindén calls for her baby with breathless sigh and Lana Del Rey-esque sensual simmer over heartbeat rhythms, cracked piano and clattering percussion. The construction time again industrial fizz and rattle of “Faith” swiftly kick up the pace with all the slick lift n’ slide of one of Blade Runner‘s spinners. A superfly glider. Travelling at 30,000 feet and rising, the aptly-titled “Ascension” licks the clouds before drifting into cruise control. A wave of woozy, wonkily warped synth lines flutter their eyelashes through a freshly anaesthetised soft-focus haze. Before we dial-up the sandman, “Denial” rocks this loveboat back into action. As bubblegum groovy and rollerskatin’ swoonsome as M83’s “Kim & Jessie” or the Knife’s “Heartbeats”, it’s an early album highlight. “Fade out ‘cos you are dying,” Lindén calls with effortless Nordic cool. It’s a perfumed last kiss before we slide under Chiaroscuro shadows. The closest the latter half gets to winter sun is the ravishing “Weight True Words”, during which a hologram of Kate Bush rides a snow white unicorn over a rainbow whilst laser beams shoot luminous pop choruses from its horn. Well, y’know something like that.
On the dark side of the street, the broken lullaby “Berceuse” proves most alluring. A cocktail twist of Purity Ring-style ‘submerged stoner’ trap beats, the wistful fragile poetry of Crystal Castles’ “Celestica” and two blue eyes crying in the rain. Glitter in the gutter melancholia lit rich with sparkles of such sweet melody. You will want to hug it out eternally. “Disclosure” walks similarly heavy-hearted but broods and swaggers like Violator-era Depeche Mode with just the grabbing hands of angels in its heavenly chorus to save it from despair. Only the overlong, crawling stormcloud of “Medicine Brush” fails the love-o-meter. An almost prog rock witchy colossus it weighs heavy on your shoulder like the Monday morning elevator descent into hell. Slo-mo waterfall synths cascade over the canyon and zombie Bonham drums rumble in the distance but at over seven minutes it’s more of an endurance test and Jesus, I want to see the bright lights tonight. Luckily Chiaroscuro fades into memory on far higher ground. The phantasmagoric “Heart to Know” is all swamp mist, lighthouses sweeping the fog, wheezing spirits, church organs and ghost boats passing in the night. It’s definitely “calling from the other side”, fingertips briefly touching before the landslide. It’s hypnotic, haunted, gone.
If Chiaroscuro isn’t quite as magnificently mesmerising as I Break Horses’ house of secrets début it still conjures enough magic to suggest it’s been touched by the wands of faeries and wizards. Whereas that supernatural oddity Hearts burrowed snugly and firmly into your imagination, the more conventional Chiaroscuro is wound taut with kinetic urgency and yearns for action, adventure and discovery. The journey. As a result it’s harder to hold it close to your bosom. That aside, this is deluxe artpop with hearts and smarts and I Break Horses retain their spot as houseband in Superman’s crystalline Fortress of Solitude.
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