HORSE the Band: Desperate Living

Not content to just be known as that metal act with video game synths, HORSE the Band throw guest appearances by a classical pianist and Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart into their stew of sounds.

HORSE the Band

Desperate Living

Label: Vagrant
US Release Date: 2009-10-06
UK Release Date: 2009-10-05

It's been a long couple of years for HORSE the Band, unintentional founders of a movement they once jokingly labeled "Nintendocore". Following the release of A Natural Death in 2007, the band embarked on their Earth Tour in 2008, traveling the world and playing in dozens of different countries. They booked the tour themselves, from the venues to the travel arrangements, playing wherever they could. They also dealt with bizarre problems such as having a venue burn down the day before they were scheduled to play there, and not being able to make a show in the Ukraine because the Moldovan army wouldn't let them travel through Transnistria. They came out of the tour broke, with no record label, and without a bass player or drummer. But they also found their reputation for playing crazy, intense live shows had grown even stronger.

So Desperate Living, the band's fourth album, arrives with several challenges on its plate. It's an album that needs to capture the band's live energy in the studio, break in a new rhythm section, and follow up on the more expansive sound that A Natural Death brought to the table over the group's first two albums. To say it successfully meets all of these challenges would be a stretch, considering that the album's bassist, Brian Grover, has apparently already left the band. But it is a disc that both bristles with raw power and isn't afraid to take chances. Things start with the cover. While previous HORSE cover art consisted mostly of abstract imagery, Desperate Living's cover is a photo of the band, looking exhausted and hung over. Not only is it highly unusual for a metal band to put themselves on an album cover, it's even rarer for them to willingly paint themselves in this light. But it works extremely well with the title and theme of the record.

Musically, HORSE the Band has always been a bit of an anomaly, marrying hardcore shouting and breakneck speed to videogame-style keyboards. The group's willingness to put keyboardist Erik Engstrom right out front with guitarist David Isen and vocalist Nathan Winneke gives them a unique sound and a penchant for the bizarre. Desperate Living finds them pushing that sound in new directions while managing to stick to their strengths. Opening track "Cloudwalker" hits hard for 50 seconds before slowing down into a spoken-word section filled with lush synths and quiet tom fills. The song careens back and forth in these two styles for the rest of the track. "The Failure of All Things" is dominated by Engstrom's breakneck 8-bit keyboard riffs, but it also works in an expansive-sounding middle section with more restrained guitar work from Isen. But it's not until "Science Police" that the album really starts to feel like something fresh. It's a genuinely catchy rock song that actually swings (!) and features Winneke's best attempt so far at honest-to-God singing. Isen's crunchy chords are complemented nicely by Engstrom's bouncy synth lines.

The next song, "Shapeshift", starts with menacing synth sounds straight out of an '80s John Carpenter movie, then plows ahead in hardcore fashion until stopping to let Winneke lament "Oh / Oh dear!". This continues for several minutes, as Engstrom's keyboard melodies accompany more spoken-word from Winneke. The song never really gets around to going back to breakneck hardcore, and ends in a duet with Winneke and Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart. Winneke shouts the lyrics, while Stewart's high-pitched voice sings the same words over top of him. Late in the album, "Rape Escape" is a highly ambitious piece that, at seven minutes, goes on too long for its own good. It features the album's most menacing vocals and riffs at first, then a simple drum-machine and keyboard interlude. Then it turns into a funky, minor-key, '80s-style new wave dance track for a few seconds before moving into a tension-laced drums-and-synth section. Finally, the track launches back into menacing metal before being overwhelmed by classical pianist Valentina Lisitsa, playing a section of a Prokofiev piano concerto. It's a fascinating experiment, but it doesn't quite hold together as a song.

But it's this kind of stuff that makes HORSE the Band so interesting. They are willing to try just about anything, and with Engstrom no longer stuck on doing all video game synths all the time, they've really been able expand their sound. A Natural Death had some of these experiments too, but a lot of them were pushed off into their own tracks. Desperate Living shows that the band has figured out how to merge the weirdness into their larger songwriting as a whole. They can do a track that's basically a goof, like the full of single-entendres and explicit sex references of "Lord Gold Wand of Unyielding". But then they turn around and close the album with "Arrive", a track that feels epic despite barely scraping past the four-minute mark. It takes full advantage of Engstrom and Isen's melodic sensibilities by ending the disc in a bright major key with a triumphant guitar solo backed by a sparkling keyboard riff and gang vocals shouting "ARRIVE!". It's all the more effective because the band keeps those major key moments in their back pocket, only pulling them out on rare occasions when they'll be most powerful. Desperate Living illustrates that there's a lot more going on with HORSE the Band than simply a crazy live show.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.