With only two songs but clocking in at nearly 38 minutes, the self-titled debut from rising Baltimore instrumental quartet Horse Lords requires fortitude and patience from listeners.
Like any worthwhile journey, it has moments of ecstatic outbursts — as well as check-your-watch lulls. But more than anything else, it's a record of restraint and precision from talented players more interested in groove and mood than cheap, sugary thrills.
The members — bassist Max Eilbacher, guitarist Owen Garden and drummers Sam Haberman and Andrew Bernstein — are no strangers to the city's music scene, playing in acts such as acerbic noisemakers Teeth Mountain and Dan Deacon's more composed touring ensemble. (The group has become a favorite among the city's best acts, too: "Horse Lords are the best new band in Baltimore and probably the world," Wye Oak singer Jenn Wasner told the City Paper in July.) That push-and-pull dynamic is evident on "Horse Lords," with its moments of freak-out bombast and long stretches of smooth, polyrhythmic drumming.
Side A's "Wildcat Strike" trudges along for a nine-minute stretch until it subtly accelerates. After a quick, cacophonous detour, a welcome moment of unity appears when a saxophone, synthesizer and guitar find equal footing in a joyous riff. It's deliriously funky, especially after the half-hypnotic/half-tedious build-up. Fittingly, the band's most potent weapons — its drummers — fade the first half out, concluding an introduction to a sonic world that is at times insular, at times liberated.
But to understand why Horse Lords has become the "it" band of the moment among hip local circles, listen to the second half, "Who Taught You to Hate Yourself?" (The name and intro-sample come from Malcolm X.) Quicker-paced and more rollicking than "Wildcat Strike," the 21-minute song fools the listener with its ebbs and flows. The near-intergalactic outtro sounds as if the members ditched their instruments to slowly float in space, only to eventually find their tools once again for a final exclamation point of cathartic banging and post-punk riffing.
Capturing a complex instrumental band's appeal to tape is never easy, and what can seem impressively locked-in live can translate to circling the drain on record. "Horse Lords" fails to completely sidestep this pitfall , but this album is a solid attempt to continually surprise listeners without bludgeoning them with piles and piles of sound.
But really, Horse Lords succeeds by never getting too comfortable. These movements are intricately designed, assembled brick-by-brick, note-by-note, and the finished product is something worth revisiting.
Rating: ✭✭ 1/2 stars out of 4