Horse Lords Create a Loud, Disciplined Roar on 'The Common Task'

Photo: Audrey Gatewood / Courtesy of Clandestine Label Services

Experimental rock's Horse Lords release their first album in four years, and it's meticulous and complex, but also undeniably joyous and celebratory.

The Common Task
Horse Lords

Northern Spy

13 March 2020

The music of Horse Lords – like all the best music – can be tough to categorize, but it's also a study in contradictions. Their music contains elements of math rock, krautrock, free jazz, minimalism, and other styles that may be a hard pill for the average music fan to swallow. While those genres may bring to mind bespectacled musicologists hunched over inscrutable sheet music, or perhaps Berklee students creating their brand of brainy jam music during a break in classes, the band have found a way to make these intricate, puzzle-like compositions soar with an electrified intensity that's uniquely engaging.

On their first album since 2016's Interventions, Horse Lords (Andrew Bernstein on saxophone, Max Eilbacher on bass, Owen Gardner on guitar and Sam Haberman on drums) continue to ply an intricate style. It's actually a variety of styles baked into one densely packed instrumental format. One of the pleasures of experiencing The Common Task is that each song lives in its self-contained universe. All five songs are uniquely composed, arranged, and performed. "Fanfare for Effective Freedom" begins with atonal, foreboding chords that pound into the ground like tent stakes before the rest of the song shuffles into the newly created shelter. Then it's off to the races, as the song builds up intensity and the band locks into place. Engaging guitar figures, electronic squalls, metronome-precise drumming, and Steve Reich-ian phase-shifting are all stuffed into the opening epic before gracefully and suddenly stopping on a dime.

"Against Gravity" – the title of which may or may not be a nod to postmodern novelist Thomas Pynchon – keeps the momentum going, albeit in a more streamlined manner. It's also the first opportunity on the album to show off Bernstein's astonishing saxophone work, which blends in seamlessly with the knotty guitar, bass, and drum interplay. For all of the cacophony, odd tunings, and unusually chosen paths, the way that the band gets into such an airtight groove is a pure joy to hear.

"The Radiant City" is the first time on The Common Task where an outside musician is used, and it's more than a mere guest spot. Duncan Moore's bagpipes dominate the song and transform the tenor of the album, allowing the band to shift gears. It briefly transforms the album from breakneck mathematical jam-fest to a droning, futuristic Celtic meditation, the bagpipes meshing in an oddly satisfying manner with bits of electronic noodling. The album's single "People's Park" is perhaps the most accessible track on the album, as Gardner's lead guitar dances joyously around the jubilant African rhythms. It's easy to picture the crowd at a Horse Lords show bopping effortlessly in time with this exuberant track, even at the end when the percussion breakdown causes the song to collapse briefly under its weight.

The album's centerpiece and the most ambitious song is the closer, "Integral Accident", which – at 18 minutes and change – makes up the second side of the album's vinyl format. Employing crowd chatter and lengthy bursts of droning in the first several minutes, the full band eventually moves in gradually, with violin, accordion, and bassoon adding more sonic layers, as well as the haunting, wordless vocalizing of Bonnie Lander. The musicians all take advantage of the song's boundless run time by creating a slow, gradual build-up, starting almost tentatively, before eventually locking into a thick, multifaceted groove. Eventually, the musicians all fade away save for a sustained electronic whir that eventually shuts off, abruptly and without fanfare.

On The Common Task, Horse Lords packs a great deal of variety and a seemingly endless amount of possibilities into 41 minutes. It's the sound of a group that is infinitely curious. This isn't your uncle's moody, downbeat krautrock – it's a breathless celebration of the power of band dynamics.





Nazis, Nostalgia, and Critique in Taika Waititi's 'Jojo Rabbit'

Arriving amidst the exhaustion of the past (21st century cultural stagnation), Waititi locates a new potential object for the nostalgic gaze with Jojo Rabbit: unpleasant and traumatic events themselves.


Why I Did Not Watch 'Hamilton' on Disney+

Just as Disney's Frozen appeared to deliver a message of 21st century girl power, Hamilton hypnotizes audiences with its rhyming hymn to American exceptionalism.


LA Popsters Paper Jackets Deliver a Message We Should Embrace (premiere + interview)

Two days before releasing their second album, LA-based pop-rock sextet Paper Jackets present a seemingly prescient music video that finds a way to ease your pain during these hard times.


'Dancing After TEN' Graphic Memoir Will Move You

Art dances with loss in the moving double-memoir by comics artists Vivian Chong and Georgia Webber, Dancing After TEN.


Punk Rock's WiiRMZ Rage at the Dying of the Light on 'Faster Cheaper'

The eight songs on WiiRMZ's Faster Cheaper are like a good sock to the jaw, bone-rattling, and disorienting in their potency.


Chris Stamey Paints in "A Brand-New Shade of Blue" (premiere + interview)

Chris Stamey adds more new songs for the 20th century with his latest album, finished while he was in quarantine. The material comes from an especially prolific 2019. "It's like flying a kite and also being the kite. It's a euphoric time," he says.


Willie Nelson Surveys His World on 'First Rose of Spring'

Country legend Willie Nelson employs his experience on a strong set of songs to take a wide look around him.


Gábor Lázár Is in Something of a Holding Pattern on 'Source'

Experimental electronic artist Gábor Lázár spins his wheels with a new album that's intermittently exciting but often lacking in variety.


Margo Price Is Rumored to Be the New Stevie Nicks

Margo Price was marketed as country rock because of her rural roots. But she was always more rock than country, as one can hear on That's How Rumors Get Started.


DMA'S Discuss Their Dancier New Album 'The Glow'

DMA'S lead-singer, Tommy O'Dell, discusses the band's new album The Glow, and talks about the dancier direction in their latest music.


The Bacon Brothers Deliver Solemn Statement With "Corona Tune" (premiere + interview)

Written and recorded during the 2020 quarantine, "Corona Tune" exemplifies the Bacon Brothers' ability to speak to the gravity of the present moment.


Garage Rockers the Bobby Lees Pay Tribute to "Wendy" (premiere)

The Bobby Lees' "Wendy" is a simmering slice of riot 'n' roll that could have come from the garage or the gutter but brims with punk attitude.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.