Horse Lords :: The Common Task

The name of Horse Lords’ new album, The Common Task, is presumably a reference to the 19th century Russian Orthodox philosopher, teacher, and librarian Nikolai Fedorovich Fedorov, whose “common task” was for humans to overcome death. Specifically, he dreamed of using science to resurrect the dead as a way of being closer to God, and in doing so anticipated many futuristic concepts (i.e. cybernetics) from his hermetic study. 

Horse Lords, too, have a way of infusing radical ideas with rational approaches. Over four studio albums, the Baltimore quartet has developed a sharp line of inquiry around systems that organize not only music-making but also society, philosophy, and belief. The ensemble gives the folksy appearance of a rock band–bass, drums, guitar, and saxophone–yet they regularly employ dense weaves of polyrhythms and explore mathematically derived tuning systems with modified instruments and electronic processing. Over the years, they’ve released four “mixtapes”–clever workshops for the band’s musical ideas that allude to hip hop as well as music lovers’ pastime of nostalgic collage. Just last month, they premiered The First Thing That Happens, a new opera devised in collaboration with Lola B. Pierson at Baltimore’s Voxel Theater, in which language is deconstructed and reconstituted in a self-aware romp that sounds like a multi-sensory game of semiotic telephone. 

Although abstract, Horse Lords’ music is well designed for social and political observation. Titles clue the listener into their ideological milieu, affirming the discourse that seems to ring out of their carefully articulated musical gestures. The band’s 2014 release, Hidden Cities, ostensibly refers to the fabulist author Italo Calvino and his masterpiece of Fibonacci fiction, Invisible Cities, in which Marco Polo regales Kublai Kahn with a Russian doll travelogue of immense invention. Towards the end, Polo tells Kahn “if I tell you that the city toward which my journey tends is discontinuous in space and time, now scattered, now more condensed, you must not believe the search for it can stop.” On that same record, they name check Marx (or perhaps Marshall Berman and his classic text on the experience of modernity in the big city) with “All that’s Solid.” 

On this current release, the milieu shifts from the theoretical to the practical. If “Radiant City” refers to Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse, it is a dirge: solemn bagpipe particulates into an electronically processed squeal that sounds not unlike that emergency test tone that surprisingly intervenes your regularly scheduled TV/radio programming. A warning, perhaps, against the impracticality of Corbu’s modernist designs as evidenced by the monolithic, mislaid projects in New York and Paris. “People’s Park” could name that legendary square in Berkeley, CA where, in 1969, a populist takeover repurposed a plot of the University of California’s land into a public space. It remains to this day an unruly bastion of peaceniks and countercultural activity. “Fanfare for Effective Freedom” borrows its title from British cyberneticist Stafford Beer’s book about his time working for the socialist government of Salvador Allende on Project Cybersyn, an ambitious effort by the Chilean government to manage the country’s new and democratically imposed social structure with a proto-internet–telex machines and televisions connected cross-country in a carefully designed and eye-poppingly futuristic control room that rivals the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Before Pinochet’s violent junta ended Cybersyn and the Allende government, Chilean folksinger Ángel Parra penned the hopeful tune, “Litany for a Computer and a Baby About to Be Born.” Horse Lords’ homage to Cybersyn is less of a paean and more of an embodiment of this aspirational technology, sonifying the radical effort to empower a more communal society. 

The Common Task boots up “Fanfare for Effective Freedom” with the sound of Horse Lords heaving octaves in unison, heavy nine pound hammer strikes in a wound-tight worksong rhythm striving to keep pace with some precise and sinister machine. The following phrase introduces a simple polyrhythm at a still-human speed, but the beat accelerates and complicates into a frenetic klang of runaway industry. Three and a half minutes in, a shift in groove heralds a sunshower of ascending and descending figures sounded by warped, synthetic bells, then a sizzle of harmonics from a just-intoned guitar that plink and plop like synapses during a head trip or perhaps ripe gigabits streaming into a hungry data center. 

There is a visceral pull to this music that on one hand sends the listener into a tranced-out, dervish-like state and on the other keenly outlines the patterns and cycles that frame our natural and built environments. The band’s command of polyrhythm and innovative sequencing of melodic motifs interlock to create a “lattice” effect in musical time and space. As in a confessional or a mosque, Horse Lords’ lattice has the effect of a screen, a porous border that separates the sacred and the profane while allowing them to coexist within a discrete composition. And that is, perhaps, the experiment of Horse Lords: to hold the tension between the rational and the irrational, the familiar and the alien, the practical and the utopian.

But what fun it is to meditate on this tension with Horse Lords! Their compositions are like rock and roll devotional music! They tout an influence of “minimalism,” but their compositions’ rich confluence of rhythmic, timbral, and structural conceptualism–as well as the sheer musical ability it takes to play this material–evinces a dazzling and detailed sonic action. They invoke a “modernist ideal,” yet evoke a feeling of timelessness, not unlike the sonic spells of Tuareg desert blues or Shri Camel era Terry Riley. As Riley muses in an interview/performance of that piece on Dutch TV in 1977, “I like to think that when people die or musicians or great saints or all these people they come back and help, you know, people who are still on the physical plane, struggling to get through it.” Regardless, Horse Lords’ tunes sound rousing and radical, alive with tomorrow’s dreams. words / a spoto

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