Music

Horseback: A Plague of Knowing

Odds-and-sods compilations are a tough proposition, for sure, but if you’re able to crack their code, much like the one surrounding Horseback, you’ll find a wealth of excess, a musical cup overflowing with ideas, vitality, and energy, always on its way towards becoming something else, something greater.


Horseback

A Plague of Knowing

Label: Relapse
US Release Date: 2013-08-20
UK Release Date: 2013-08-19
Amazon
iTunes

What do you do with the kind of brain-dump that A Plague of Knowing represents? It’s tough to listen to them all the way through, front to back, because the songs weren’t composed with a single listen in mind; in fact, many of them were composed with seemingly no relation to one another. Odds-and-sods compilations are a tough proposition, for sure, but if you’re able to crack their code, much like the one surrounding Horseback, you’ll find a wealth of excess, a musical cup overflowing with ideas, vitality, and energy, always on its way towards becoming something else, something greater.

Nominally the solo project of Jenks Miller, lately of Merge-signees Mount Moriah, Horseback has been functioning in one form or another for several years now. Since 2007, Miller has released a variety of cassette, split, demo, and full-lengths on labels both big (Relapse) and obscure (Brave Mysteries), in varying styles. For many people, he emerged with Impale Golden Horn as a crafter of meticulous drone, full of strained harmonies and shoegaze layers. I personally discovered him via 2009’s The Invisible Mountain, a strange beast compiling grooving Americana, latter-day Neil Young guitar-picking, and croaking Xasthur-by-way-of-Tom Waits vocals. Its effect is to simultaneously uplift and obliterate, and Miller’s affection for esoteric subject matter like shamanism and alchemical transformation shows through both in his ideas and his approach.

Besides these major releases (2012’s Half Blood made a big splash on Pitchfork and NPR), Horseback has released a number of hard-to-find pieces of music, both on his own and under other labels. The first disc of Plague covers this 2007-2012 period, and its songs fall mostly in the style of his several full-lengths. “On the Eclipse” is a grooving slab of Invisible Mountain-style rock, with prominent keyboards and buried vocals. “High Ashen Slab” and “Another World", taken from a split with Voltigeurs from 2010, are about as close to lo-fi black metal as Miller has gotten, though perhaps if Varg Vikernes had spent more time listening to the Doors and inserting funky organ solos into Filosofem. One of my favorite Horseback rarities, “Thee Cult of Henry Flynt", is present as well, and positively roars in its psychedelic blast beats and twisted, feedback-laced back half. There’s even a rollicking live cover of the Stooges' “TV Eye”.

Given that disc one hews closest to Miller’s most visible work, it seems likely that most fans of Horseback will find it the most enjoyable, even interesting. I know I did. Disc three’s two compositions, a live version of “Impale Golden Horn” and the forty-minute drone masterwork that gives this compilation its name, will also be of interest, particularly for fans of the band’s earliest work. Both songs counterweight the other: where “Horn” is minimal, lean, almost instinctual, “Plague” is lush, uplifting. One bleeds into the other, and if placed end-on-end they loop marvelously. These are the two sides of Miller’s artistic drive; these are the black and white parts of his soul.

If you noticed how I skipped disc two above, first off: good eyes. This is because it’s the true problem child of the bunch. Composed of an expanded version of 2012 cassette release Stolen Fire, the songs are a mix of cast-offs, demos, and odd indie-pop experiments unlike anything Horseback has ever done. Many of these seem to be composed purely of keyboard, drum machine, and clean vocal, and almost no idea feels truly developed. If I had a long road trip and only Plague stuck in a three-CD changer, I'd likely skip disc two nearly every time.

But then again, isn’t that missing the point? Stolen Fire was initially a dump of ideas in various states of becoming. They reinforce the creative process, demonstrating that Miller puts time and effort into developing his compositionally-dense songs. As the somewhat-hyperbolic (though not by metal standards) press release on Relapse’s website states, “the mangled forms on display in this collection are stitches in a larger fabric, however unsightly they may seem.” In order to get to the lushness of Golden Horn’s “Finale” or the “Hallucigenia” trilogy on Half Blood, you need something like “Do You Have a True Feeling? (Plagued Version)” or the synth-crush of “Luciferian Theme". No artist works in a vacuum, and that includes the context of their own work. OnPlague, Miller provides the listener with an insight into what makes it and what doesn’t, and by serving it to us in a warts-and-all three-disc package, he positively chokes us with his output, daring us to swallow it as a whole. It’s a tall order, but if there is a modern band more deserving of this treatment, I don’t know it.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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