So two guys from an instrumental band are sitting in a record store talking music and politics—ouch. That sounds like the setup to a clunker of a stand-up bit. But when the record store is True Vine and those two guys are percussionist/saxophonist Andrew Bernstein and guitarist Owen Gardner, the conversation is a mix of smarts and fun—much like the music they create with bassist Max Eilbacher and drummer Sam Haberman in Horse Lords, whose new album “Hidden Cities” (NNA Tapes) continues the band’s inviting union of American minimalism, propulsive rock, and the time-traveling intricacies of African rhythms.
Here’s Gardner, discussing his interest in music from other cultures that informs the band: “You get a more complete idea of what music can be if you can hear it from another point of view. I don’t know if you can actually hear differently, but you can hear what somebody does with a different idea of what it should be. A lot of people can find it really jarring and unpleasant, and the further the people are from the way you’ve lived your life chances are the less it will have to do with what you think music is supposed to be. But if you’re willing, it can open up new avenues.”
Gardner and Bernstein—Eilbacher and Haberman sadly couldn’t make it—are talking about the band’s five-track sophomore album, which features two long, scorching pieces, ‘Outer East’ and ‘Macaw,’ that have lit up the band’s live sets over the past year. Both spotlight the group’s dynamic way of layering multiple rhythmic phrases into moments of bruising intensity and dizzying complexity. Head-pounding stretches of rhythmic unison splinter into disorienting layered phrases as parts of songs come together and disintegrate in the ear, all while maintaining an insistent forward momentum.
According to Bernstein and Gardner, Horse Lords’ music can be as overwhelming to play as it is to see/hear. “I feel like sometimes everybody is sort of playing by themselves together,” Bernstein says. “You can focus in on some individual parts and it can be interesting on its own and then zoom out and see the whole structure of what’s happening in the band. There’s kind of too much going on to take it all in at once, for better or worse.”
That “too much” creates an absorbing vibe. The four musicians in Horse Lords recognize that knowing how to talk modern composition doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate an ass-flattening groove—and that such serious percussive jams can move more than the ass. It’s simply a matter of how you’re approaching it: body or mind? “Hidden Cities” taps into both.
Throughout, Haberman’s herculean time-keeping is dependable enough to be certified by the Swiss, and over his GMT standard, bandmates add noise textures and the swirling rhythms that make the band such a hypnotic rush. Album standout ‘Macaw’ is like Steve Reich’s “Drumming” taken out for a psychedelic spin, where the rotating shifts of four musicians fold percussive patterns in and out of sync, creating a transporting throb in the base of the skull. That mood is echoed in the abstract wash of ‘Tent City,’ the discombobulating electronics of ‘All That is Solid,’ and the drumline-like rally of ‘Life Without Dead Time.’
Lead-off track ‘Outer East’ establishes a different kind of bliss, braiding Eilbacher’s no-wave bass around Bernstein’s sax skronk and Gardner’s distorted notes, all of which gets draped over Haberman’s steady groove. Imagine grafting the interstellar overdrive of Ash Ra Tempel onto the granular, soul-cry funk of Sly & the Family Stone, pulling from the early ’70s, when young musicians in both Germany and America grappled with their country’s history in music.
Horse Lords allude to history’s long shadow through their song titles. The 2012 self-titled debut cribbed its song titles from a Malcolm X speech (‘Who Taught You to Hate Yourself’) and the protest tactic used by workers during May 1968 in France (‘Wildcat Strike’). May ’68 surfaces again on the new album via “dead time,” the notion of human consciousness numbed by the capitalist enterprise that was part of a Situationists’ slogan during that spring. That cheeky Marxism is reinforced by the outright “Communist Manifesto” allusion ‘All That is Solid.’
The album title itself comes from Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities,” the name of the sections in that speculative ethnography wherein Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, the two figures whose conversation frames the novel, touch upon ideas of right and wrong. That Horse Lords obliquely incorporates such thoughts into its music begs the question: Can instrumental music convey political ideas?
“I don’t know,” Gardner says. “It’s been the challenge for me the whole time. Instrumental music especially—is there anything you can do with that? My gut tells me yes. But I don’t know.” Bernstein and Gardner quickly throw a few ideas around: The band’s music is long, instrumental, has no chord changes, and the band tends to plays DIY spaces, so the commercial potential isn’t just limited but nonexistent. So, yes, the consumption of the band’s music, like DIY culture in general, is intentionally removed from mass markets, but how about the sound itself?
Well, a musician or two has explored the relationship between the freed mind and the ass. And these four guys refreshingly aren’t out to shove anything down anybody’s throat. There are many ways to hear music; only two have been touched on in relation to Horse Lords here. One: fall into the wormholes the group’s pulsating, complexly heady music opens up in the brain. Two: smile ear-to-ear because listening to the band just fucking feels good. Find your own path.
“We’re letting people have their own experience of these things, and if you just want to listen to it and not think at all, that’s fine too,” Bernstein says. “We like to talk about these things and work them into the music but we also just like to play.”
Horse Lords play a CD release show Nov. 5 at the Crown with Flock of Dimes, Strange Times People Band, Ryan Power, Designer, and M.C. Schmidt and Jason Willett.
Stream the new album here: