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.
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.