If you’ll excuse the scatological metaphor, the existing title of this record might be better served as an adjective describing what comes out of a horse’s ass, rather than as the noun naming the horse itself. Let’s call it The Horse Dung for the time being. I’m proposing to change the part of speech not because the record is full of crap; rather, it’s because it sounds like a barn in need of a good hosing-down. Brown buzzing keyboards splat like hungry flies against brown-noise beats, guitars bravely slog through whirling synthesizers, and muffled vocals often dig out from underneath the mess. Happily, though, one of the best qualities of the record is that this muddy sound adds to its appeal.
Now, while it’s obvious that the titular beast has been eating a lot of fibrous Krautrock that both Kraftwerks its way through its stomach and meanders around the twists of its intestines with the Neu!-trality of a tapeworm intent on a meal, the one thing that separates this 2003-model motorik from the vintage stuff is the sheer filth of the sound here. Kraftwerk and Neu! may have been trying to get you lost in the Mobius strip of winding sound, but they were doing it cleanly, mit precision and, often, grace (Neu! album covers and the art-as-recycled-detritus modus operandi of their second album notwithstanding).
What’s more, this album isn’t as monolithically Teutonic as those two references would lead you to believe. In other words, the Chap may be musically close to those two, but they’re perhaps aesthetically closer to the more experimental leanings of Amon Duul II and Faust. (“BITSS!!” sounds just like the exclamatory tentativeness of its title, as it moves easily from clicks, cuts, and ambient guitar noise to a tabla-cello-big beat freakout ending, while the track that follows it, “We’re Not Impartial”, provides a gentler, kinder contrast in sound.).
To this Krauty goodness are added healthy dollops of Limey humor. For an album with very few lyrics, it sounds very much like a cultural product of England, almost as if George Orwell would have written about the record alongside his essays on boys’ weeklies and bawdy postcards. “Courage and Modesty” could have been a great collaboration between Ian Dury (one part Cockney-ish slang), the Human League (two parts flat boy-girl harmonies), and a World War II Minister of Information (one part homefront propaganda—“Let’s roll up our sleeves / And do our shifts” is one of the more choice couplets). But at the same time, the insistent rhythms and exhortative lyrics point to the more Nietzschean impulses of Euro Body Music; it’s like the grey hordes of 1940s England were conquered and now dance the blitzkrieg bop of the Ubermensch.
On the lighter side of the moon, though, the po-faced humor of song titles like “I Got Flattened by a Pig Farmer” or “(Hats off to) Dror Frangi” are English through and through. The former stealths along with starving-rat-locked-in-a-chicken-coop-at-night vocals, scarecrow percussion, and hoedown fiddle. (And, yes, it does rhyme “sumo wrestler” and “super wrestler”.) “Dror Frangi” figuratively tosses away Led Zeppelin’s tribute to English psych-folkie Roy Harper in order to make way for two singers intoning “Rar! Rar! Rar! Rar!” as if they were Page and Plant’s imaginary dragons and guitar and vocal harmonies that shine like the houses of the holy.
Coupled with the English humor and Germanic sonics on the record, too, is an overwhelming sense of the tropes of American Indie Rock of the 1990s. For example, the opener, “The Horse”, is a beatbox-and-acoustic guitar stomper that would make John Darnielle (a.k.a. the Mountain Goats) proud. And the closer, “Why Don’t You Hit Me Back”, weds the Dead Milkmen’s annoyingly ubiquitous “Instant Club Hit” to any number of swirly two-track Ween songs on their earliest and most fucked-up tape-only recordings about Satan and weed. These two bookend songs that reference Tortoise and their jazzy/math-rock friends (“Volumatic Spacer Device”) and the Pixies’ quiet/loud dynamics (“Effort Plus Guns” which, to be honest, trucks in a quiet/less-quiet dynamic in its chorus).
All this doesn’t mean, though, that The Horse comes across as completely derivative. As with the record’s overall dirtiness, the skillful and playful intermingling of the influences make for a rewarding listen. It would probably be too much to say the record is the polyglottal child of the world, but if you’re travelling the musical highways (or at least CD browser-racks) looking to get a hearty nosebag full of intelligent electronic music, it might be best to clomp right into—rather than sidestep—the poopy pile of sound.
// Notes from the Road
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