Let’s cut to the chase: HORSEBACK is thoroughly original. No band really sounds like them when they’re in their element. Combining rough and distorted vocals with cosmic, indie-alt production and musicianship, Jenks Miller’s bizarre project defies all identification, priding itself on breaking tradition instead of accessibility. Their latest rarities collection, A Plague of Knowing, over-indulges their sound a bit too much, but still keeps their unclassifiable vibe alive.
HORSEBACK is a very interesting animal in the world of metal. Founded by Mount Moriah guitarist Jenks Miller, HORSEBACK does contain influences from the grindcore vocal world. The rough and growling singing is brutal, but through clever production and subtle uses of atmospheric effects, it sounds spectral and otherworldly, in addition to being heavy. The increased use of distortion adds an almost frightening element to Miller’s vocals; it’s unintelligible, but like many ghosts of horror movies, that lack of coherence makes it even more difficult to understand and more enticing to explore.
From the musical side of things, however, A Plague of Knowing is very un-metal. The heaviness is toned back considerably for progressive rock-influenced ambiance and majestic, ethereal soundscapes. This is a startlingly inventive move that sounds very bizarre at first, but instead shows how to make something intense like growling vocals fit in with one of the least intense fields of contemporary music. Even compared to spacey prog metal like Mastodon’s Crack the Skye of Between the Buried and Me’s Colors, HORSEBACK’s A Plague of Knowing kicks the ambiance into its highest gear, transcending the intense façade and machining its way into higher places. By far, what Miller has truly done with HORSEBACK is abandon all sense of taxonomy; classifying what HORSEBACK is isn’t possible.
A Plague of Knowing is extensive, with 24 tracks composed of live recordings, vinyl songs, demos and rarities from the entire HORSEBACK discography. While seasoned fans will love individual mixes and specific musical endeavors, newcomers aren’t likely to find any specific examples of prowess throughout this collection. A Plague of Knowing is best experienced as a collective and while there aren’t one or two standouts, the entire album is compiled so well as a whole that it’s tough to not get lost in all 24 tracks. For example, “MILH” and “IHVH” merge together well, with spacey production, climbing melodies and the distorted static of Miller’s growls. This storm is quiet, but intense; A Plague of Knowing is so radically different from so many other metal bands that it’s sure to underwhelm the fans of instantly gratifying radio metal. It’s not meant to punch you in the face; it’s meant to slowly weather away the interference before going in for the finisher.
That being said, though, this near-dependence on collectiveness demonstrates a lasting sense of self-indulgence and length. 24 tracks is a lot of music, and with so many of these tracks lasting more than 5 minutes (the closing title track is a whopping 41 minutes long), it can overstay its welcome a bit. It’s very muddled in its continuity; in other longer albums, these extensive passages add a connection and unity between the tracks, telling a bigger story. A Plague of Knowing, however, is no concept album. It’s a rarities collection, so these lengthy songs don’t link together and it can make the longest ones a bit hollow in their meaning. Also, since these songs are already very spacey and atmospheric, A Plague of Knowing isn’t a concentration album, that is, it’s best played in the background and not when you’re actively listening. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing: A Plague of Knowing has a ton of creativity behind its creator. It’s not focused enough to stand out, but really, it doesn’t need to.
HORSEBACK will not appeal to everyone. It’s an extremely slow burn, even next to its progressive anthem-constructing peers, and it will instantly flop with anyone addicted to adrenaline-soaked radio metal. But those with patience will discover something purely original in HORSEBACK. Judging the album itself, however, isn’t as cut and dry. The immense length of the collection and the very broad song construction can make the entire album sound over indulgent and too long to handle. Once again, it’s an album that not only doesn’t demand active listening, but is best to avoid that. It can’t be recommended as a record where you’ll get lost in every second of every track. But it clicks distantly and effectively. For anyone with a penchant for musical journeys (albeit long ones), you’ll find this rarities collection to hold some wonderful enjoyment. Original and chock full of content, A Plague of Knowing won’t make any new fans, but will secure the reverence of anyone already familiar with HORSEBACK.