North Carolina-based one-man band Horseback, masterminded by Jenks Miller, has released his/their newest full-length, Dead Ringers, via Relapse Records. (Get it from Amazon.) Those who’ve followed the group’s progression will not be surprised to find Horseback continuing to expand its singular sound on this epic recording.

Horseback has always plucked at the tenuous strings that bound it to the world of metal, and on Dead Ringers, those ties may finally have been severed. Album opener “Modern Pull” sets the stage with its insistent rhythm and almost trip-hop feel, guitar feedback and keys creating a soft bed for Miller’s plaintive vocal to eventually appear. While the album’s lyrics are inspired by the apocalypse, the mood here is not one of urgency but resignation. “Close your eyes and waiting,” Miller intones, and the listener is softly lulled into that good night.

Despite the understated performance, the drums might just be the defining characteristic of Dead Ringers. The consistent and unwavering beat reminds one of a more rustic Tortoise. It is notable that in many eschatological narratives, the roads often still exist, as a signifier of the civilization that has fallen away, and thus there is a certain affinity existing between Horseback‘s Dead Ringers and Kraftwerk‘s Autobahn, one an ode to that European superhighway and the other a requiem for the mythic American road and whatever is found on one’s individual journey.

Miller utilizes a combination of electronics and keys to create the harmonic heft draped over the rhythmic framework. This too harkens back to that early Tortoise/Thrill Jockey Records sound or perhaps, but not too much, the latest iteration of retro “vaporwave” music. The effect supports the aforementioned resignation-versus-urgency dichotomy.

The guitar work is quite intriguing as well, the phrases almost sounding sampled at times, plugged into the resulting aural collage. The lines are not overly simplistic, though; they sound a bit like some of Marc Ribot‘s gorgeous, rigorously stripped-down work, or perhaps evocative of Neil Young‘s soundtrack to the Jim Jarmusch film Dead Man, which is rather appropriately about one man’s own personal apocalypse.

It’s hard to imagine a listener approaching Dead Ringers with a strong set of preconceived notions. It is neither drastically different nor incredibly the same as Horseback‘s prior work. The overused term “evolution” seems to be the best way to describe it. This isn’t an album that checks off a box either, not something where you might say “I want to hear some new black metal or some new jazz” and reach for any number of releases fitting your category of choice. Rather, Dead Ringers requires a certain sense of openness and trust where you allow yourself to be taken by the hand and led on a journey down America’s broken highways…and whatever comes, comes.

Todd Manning

Get Dead Ringers from Amazon

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