4 out of 5
Label: Northern Spy
Produced by: Jared Paolini (recorded by)
Don Caballero really opened the doors for me for instrumental indie rock. I don’t know if I knew it existed before them; I dug instrumental tracks on albums that otherwise included singing, but I can’t recall if I owned a whole music-only album (that wasn’t a score) prior to American Don, which was the first “I like this Touch and Go label so let me check this out” purchase I made of the group’s.
And… it set a bar. Later, I would come to understand that American Don wasn’t what the Don Cab kids wanted – they were more into the rock of Don Cab 2 or What Burns – but since I started with the more experimental vistas of what was DC’s last album (in their original incarnation), that’s what I wanted. There was a long pause between that release and the first Battles disc, which seemed to pick up the thread… sorta… and then less and less so as Battles grew on its own terms.
As my tastes evolved, I would discover a lot of artists whom I felt understood what I was looking for in this particular vein – whether inspired by Don Cab or not – and Horse Lords have blown that out to an extreme, bringing in electronic and world music elements that don’t undermine the otherworldly tunings and odd pacings they employ across tracks of idle guitar pluckings and noise blowouts and storytelling. It’s everything that, to me, was promised by American Don and then fleshed out further by Ian Williams in Battles (and earlier, in Storm & Stress), but steered in to something that very much stays rooted in the guitar-based sounds of Don Cab. ‘The Common Task,’ Horse Lords’ 2020 album, outlines an idealized society across its five tracks, bringing in bagpipes for an interlude on ‘The Radiant City’ and wind instruments and strings on the slow-burn fuzz of the nigh-20 minute closer, ‘Integral Accident.’
These song titles are part of the aforementioned storytelling, but also confuse the point a little bit: opener ‘Fanfare for Effective Freedom’ and its followup ‘Against Gravity’ sound celebratory, while also suggesting something of a revolution. ‘People’s Park,’ after the humble bagpipe sounds then feels like its come out on the other side of that – it’s folky, boppy, and playful. So I have a hard time fitting the closer into things: while an absolutely worthwhile and fascinating experiment of clicks and clacks for 10+ minutes, before resolving into an alarming mesh of syncopated guitars, I’m not clear where it fits emotionally into the album, and its slow-burn is very slow, taking a couple of listens to set expectations on how the track flows.
But: I experience no moments of doubt across the album; no sound that makes me think – well, this isn’t what I thought the band was doing. Horse Lords’ The Common Task manages to be unique amongst the group’s discography, unique in general, and then also wholly satisfying in jumping down the angular, math-y rock hole that I’ve searched for since American Don made me believe such a thing existed.