I Break Horses
45:39 min • Bella Union • January 21, 2014
John Preston reviews
I Break Horses’ second album Chiarascuro, Italian for contrasting light and dark, is a very multi-layered and somewhat intense affair. Thick with manic hi hats, synths and stereo centric effects, the melodies when they do appear are strong and compelling, but half of the album forsakes this dominant foreboding mood, which represents the extremes of the title in a way. Hearts, I Break Horses’ debut album, was released in 2011 and was also a thick and textured, atmospheric electronic album, yet it was also significantly more optimistic and in many ways accessible than this follow up. There were also songs on their first album – a couple only, admittedly – that you could dance to and although Chiarascuro contains tracks that may inspire moving but there is nothing here that will leave you dehydrated.
Swedish electronic music is seemingly dominated by female singers that make pop music which is beautiful, ten steps ahead of their European neighbours, both sad and joyous. Robyn is their leader. Maria Linden and Fredrik Balck relate to both the beauty and sadness but these Swedes have more in common with artists from the US label Italians Do It Better, such as Chromatics and Glass Candy, with Linden’s sweet but depressed, sometimes dead-eyed delivered replicating the female leads of these groups. Musically, recent School of Seven Bells and Nigel Godrich group Ultraista come close with their rave punctuated, electronic disco for introverts but I Break Horses is often far more distant and harder to know.
Chiarascuro starts with the noir like and dramatic, piano-led ‘You Burn’, a strong and slowly thumping Italian disco influenced lead that doesn’t sound like any other song here. The next 3 tracks amplify the energy significantly and successfully and with ‘Denial’, the best of the trio, Linden’s dreamy vocals are initially attacked by stun guns, stuttered like a Stock, Aitken and Waterman 12 inch, and surrounded by syn-drums that aren’t retro sounding but fresh as well as darkly pop. It really does sound great and, yes, sad and beautiful.
The second half of the album does not replicate the first though. Linden and Balck have a distinct ability to create instant and exciting music but they then decide to pull back from this. Tracks like the 7 minute, funereal ‘Medicin Bush’ (with very Julee Cruise falsetto vocals thankfully adding some respite), the overly sombre ‘Berceuse’, and out of focus (both melodically and sonically) ‘Disclosure’, all reinforce the sense of nothing really happening over a long period of time. All is not lost though and album late comer ‘Weigh True Words’ reignites the spark and distortion of the earlier tracks and with its repetitious but thrilling house percussion and chorus. It’s the best tune of the album.
Ultimately Chiarascuro is a somewhat uneven collection of 9 tracks. The longer songs needs to be shorter, and vice-versa. The stronger poppier melodies can be frustratingly buried, and at nearly 8 minutes long the art doom of ‘Heart To Know’ is just very hard going indeed. Listen to this on a decent set of headphones though and there is still a lot of pleasure to be had, and the humour in some of the diseased sounding short synth motifs and computer game effects are thrilling. It may still be difficult to really understand what Maria Lindén is actually singing about but the lyrics aren’t the most important thing here. I Break Horses is really about mood and the album title is a clue to the strong contrast between the two sides of the album. The light may be under represented but the point where the two collide can be dazzling.