Horseback: Piedmont Apocrypha

[13 May 2014]

By Alex Franquelli

A new American dream

The raw, honest, and ultimately humane way in which Jenks Miller utters the words “I was born to lose / I won’t have this form forever”, on the aptly titled opening track “Passing Through”, tells a story in itself. It is more than a comment and yet something less than a statement. His voice is left devoid of effects and alterations, so much so that one is able to sense the man’s fragility and alienation. The music is reduced to a series of repetitions, while the sound is stripped to the essential, but the sense of grandiose hopelessness so acutely meshed with human existence remains in all its dramatic nature. This review could end here, since any further wording would inevitably entail gambling with redundancy, but every single Horseback release has to be examined keeping in mind the complex entirety of the band’s production and the overall dynamics behind an apparently incoherent discography.

Individuality and Americana music are two elements that are very often intimately combined. Piedmont Apocrypha is a truthful reinterpretation of the canons of North American folk sounds by the hands of a one-man band lead by an inspired artistic unrest which has taken it from black riffage (The Invisible Mountain) to the sore dissonances on Half Blood. At a closer inspection, Miller’s music today is as devoted to the likes of Terry Riley, Jack Nitzsche, and Morton Feldman as it is to Neil Young and Paul Simon. No matter the perspective: the result will take you—almost unmistakably—back to the roots of modern America. 

Can a universal language be so inherently intertwined with a precise geographical context and yet remain convincingly contemporary? If it works with other forms of art (Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater or Gaudì’s Casa Milà, for example), why should music be exempted? Jenks Miller lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, right in the middle of the Piedmont plateau. The Appalachian Mountains may restrict his field of view to the West, but the attributes of the Piedmont blues are well implanted in his musical aesthetics. “Consecration Blues”, for instance, is the song Dianogah have always wanted to write, spawning little masterpieces like As Seen From Above or Battle Champions in the process. Or the beautifully constructed “Chanting Out the Low Shadow”, with its 17-minute dynamics revolving around simple—very simple—ideas, which make this album a clever alternative to more traditional approaches to traditional American music.

The essence of Horseback as we know it is to be found in the brusque changes of mood (“Chanting Out the Low Shadow”) and in the use of drones (pretty much everywhere), but in reality there is not much left of what once was a post-metal combo. Is it a bad thing? Not at all, if these are the results. The dark ambience remains to haunt an inspired act, which may as well return to more conventional musical symmetries in the near future, but Piedmont Apocrypha will have set the bar uncomfortably high.

Music can rarely get more genuinely personal than this. But when it does, this is what it sounds like.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/181294-horseback-piedmont-apocrypha/