Horseback fan, I was unsure of what to expect of this release, the band's first LP for new label Relapse Records. What was once North Carolina's Jenks Miller's solo project has now become a functioning band with a rhythm section; in hindsight, that should have the first clue to check my expectations at the door. But frankly, it was Russian artist Denis Forkas Kostromitin's cover art - which is among the best album art in recent memory - that tripped me up and reminded me that it is never wise to approach a Horseback album with any sort of expectations.
The art is a striking representation of the Zoroastrian deity Mithra - the guardian of Asha (Truth, Righteousness) and protector of cattle. I bring this up because it seems quite important in the overall aesthetic of the album: using a multiplicity of approaches, what Horseback have ultimately delivered with Half Blood is a testament to the necessarily pluralistic and diverse nature of truth and the power that said truth can deliver through sound, visual art, language, and meditation. They've also delivered not only their finest album, but also one of the finest albums that will be released in all of 2012.
Horseback has never been about making one kind of music; Miller's previous works have touched on a wide variety of heavy music - drone, noise, post-rock, psych, doom, black metal, and others can all be heard in the Horseback catalog. Heavier doses of Americana and krautrock can now be added to the mix (honestly, they were there before, but have never been as pronounced as they are with this record). Three tracks in particular are heavy on that Americana sound that we've heard Dylan Carlson and Earth experimenting with, though in a much different manner. The album's first two tracks - "Mithras" and "Ahriman" utilize mid-paced driving rhythms and a more structured approach than a lot of Horseback fans may be used to, to introduce the album, with Miller's sinister distorted vocals betraying an aggression that may not be so obvious in the music itself. "Inheritance (The Changeling)" then takes the album in a different direction entirely. Its foundation is a bed of quiet, yet it is highly uncomfortable. Electronic pulses atop the muted organ lead into the wall of poetic guitar noise and drone that has characterized much of the Horseback sound over the years. "Arjuna" reverts back to the sound of the first two tracks, but near the end of the track we hear Miller's raspy harsh vocals intertwined and alternated with quieter, clean vocals ("one by one by one...") that make this song impossible to shake from the consciousness. The three-part "Hallucigenia" that makes up the entire B-side of the LP sees the band wander from a somewhat-muted yet blistering drone to a spacey, psychedelic journey into kraut territory not altogether different from what you might hear on a Sylvester Anfang II or Amon Duul II record, and might even fit it with some of the astral/occult wanderings of Aluk Todolo. Hypnotic, meditative, and quite heavy at times, this is some of the best material that Jenks Miller has concocted, and even though the album finishes up quite nicely, I was left wanting more, wondering what else Mr. Miller has up his sleeve.
In the end, Half Blood, like the Asha that Mithra guards, seems to embrace all content, all reality, even though the forms may vary. It is indeed difficult to deny that there is something very cosmic at work on this record. Since the American Space Shuttle program has for all intents and purposes been shut down, perhaps it is in our best interest to let Jenks Miller and Horseback be our guide into the depths of the universe.
This album is available on 180-gram black vinyl, a lighter (standard-gram?) brown vinyl, on CD, and in digital format. There's also a nifty t-shirt for sale as well. These can all be had now from Relapse Records.