Sometimes, you’ve just got to let it go.
It would be easy to try and classify Horace X using some sort of hyphenated genre label that attempts to encapsulate all of the myriad styles that appear on their album. Easy to try, yes, but impossible to truly achieve. Eastern European Folk-Reggae-Techno? Balkan ska-punk? Jazz-Electroniriverdance? Sometimes, you just need to let it be “music”.
Horace X plays “music”, that much is certain. In fact, they play upbeat, fun, music, music that makes you dance, music that can make you feel joy in the way “Karma Chameleon” used to. Or maybe that was just me. That such joy emanates from an album that begins with a decidedly gothic (less Bauhaus than 1930’s vampire flick) pipe organ motif is remarkable. The album is called Strategy, the latest in a career that has now passed the eleven-year mark. Not bad for a band famous for their affinity for blacklights. The song with the organ? It’s called “First Love”, and it quickly supplements those sinister sounds with horns, a reggae beat, and Simon Twitchin’s energetic, rhythmically spot-on vocals. The song really gets going when the fiddle shows up, courtesy of Hazel Fairbairn, adding a decidedly Celtic flavor to a decidedly Jamaican song. Of course, it’s very likely that such description makes “First Love” sound complicated and busy. Nothing could be farther from the truth—the most appealing thing about it is just how utterly effortless the fusion of styles sounds.
With all six members of the band bringing different influences as disparate as Gypsy music, Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, it’s easy to see that such fusion is not only important, but necessary for the band. “Skin” is a sample heavy techno tune that just happens to feature heavy, multitracked jazz saxophone/clarinet soloing and fast-but-measured fiddles. “How Far?” is an instrumental whose vocals come from found spoken-word samples, but whose life comes from the harmonica that floats in and out of focus as the song progresses. “Puppet Show” is ska played with the flourishes of a traveling circus. It’s as fun as utter musical insanity can be, and it never lets up for a second.
It would all be overwhelming and even annoying if it weren’t pulled off with as much skill as it is. The production on Strategy is perfect, striking a balance between all of the instruments that favors rhythm above all else but allows every single instrument to get its due. Whether fiddle, keyboard, guitar, or whistle, every instrument is audible and clear as a bell.
If it’s possible to lob a criticism at a release as startlingly fresh as Strategy, it’s that every song sounds as if it is mere framework for what is undoubtedly a dynamic, energetic live show. The sex romp that is “She Want” is one of the only tracks where Horace X really sounds like its members are letting loose the way they would in front of the audience—the running time is long, the tempo is high, and the whole thing is a big dense party of a track. While the other tracks party too, they all feel a bit more restrained, as if everyone’s just waiting to let loose, to escape the predictability that recorded media inevitably brings. While I certainly wouldn’t place Horace X in the category of a jam band, I could certainly see a few of these songs lasting for 15 minutes and the entire audience being perfectly fine about it.
So perhaps it’s true that Horace X could probably let loose on record a little more, giving their songs more room to breathe than they already have. Even so, if that’s the worst that can be said about an album, that album is probably something special. Strategy is the most energetic thing to come across my desk in months, and it’s got the musical chops to back it up. Forget what you know about “genre”—appreciate that it’s simply music, and you’re bound to leave this one satisfied.
// Notes from the Road
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