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Horseback, "Dead Ringers"

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cover imageWhile it has only been seven years since my first exposure to Jenks Miller's Horseback (2009's The Invisible Mountain), the amount of change and evolution the project has undergone is astounding.  What began as classically minimalist Sabbath worship veered toward psychedelic southern rock and has now come back as an idiosyncratic electronic record full of untreated vocals and captivating melodies.  Even with this wide variation in sound, Dead Ringers manages to stay consistent with Miller's previous body of work while still sounding like a different, but no less amazing beast.

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The transition was not as abrupt as it may seem on the surface, however.  The Stolen Fire tape (later reissued in the A Plague of Knowing collection) featured some of Miller's first overt excursions into the world of drum machines, synths, and samplers, but compared to the lush arrangements and orchestrations of Dead Ringers, those earlier pieces feel far more like demos or experiments compared to these fully fleshed out songs.

For instance, the snappy drum machine and fuzzy guitar that lead off  album opener "Modern Pull" is an odd pairing of up tempo rhythms and dissonance, but the two disparate elements meld together perfectly.  Most shocking is, besides the synthesizer focus, is Miller's clean, undistorted vocals, which rarely appeared in such a naked manner.  It may not sound like it at first, but there is a vintage electronic pop aspect to the sound, but one that is undeniably Horseback once the classic rock inspired guitar soloing kicks in.

On "A Bolt from Blue", the electronic sounds take on a more deconstructed avant garde sound as an almost 90s R&B rhythm section underpins bizarre chimes and twang-heavy guitar.  There is a distinct lightness to the sound, but one that is almost uncomfortably strange once the vocals kick in.  The same goes for "Lion Killer", with its rich synthesizer arrangement and bass guitar lead, with bent electronics and marimba giving a bizarrely psychedelic edge to what could almost pass as a pop song.

The Horseback of old still appears here and there on this record, however.  "In Another Time, In and Out of Form" feels like a throwback to the Invisible Mountain days with its circular, chugging riffs and what sounds like live drumming, the only distinction being Miller's singing as opposed to the demonic growl that featured more heavily in his earlier work.  "The Cord Itself" channels the greater abstraction that defined Forbidden Planet with its dubby echo chamber rhythms and dark guitar drone, building to an intense wall but never going full metal.

Dead Ringers is, like much of the Horseback catalog, difficult to fully explain, which is exactly what makes it so fascinating.  Genre tags are somewhat useless, because the wide array of instrumentation and production styles are pulled together on here that contradict one another, yet in the hands of Jenks Miller make perfect sense alongside each other.  It really just boils down to the fact that this is a Horseback album, and no one makes them quite like he does.  Each one thus far has had a distinct sound, and this is no different.  But perhaps the most striking element is how his songwriting and arrangement has grown.  Not to demean any of his previous work, but Dead Ringers is extremely impressive in its composition and production, giving it an added depth that amazes with each listening.

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