Record Review: Horseback’s The Gorgon Tongue: Impale Golden Horn + Forbidden Planet

Horseback: The Gorgon Tongue: Impale Golden Horn + Forbidden PlanetHorseback: The Gorgon Tongue: Impale Golden Horn + Forbidden Planet (Relapse, 5/10/11)

Horseback: “The Golden Horn”

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Jenks Miller is the sole constant in avant-metal outfit Horseback. Miller’s output — occasionally under his own name, often as Horseback, and recently with the Americana group Mount Moriah — has been a steady trickle over the past three years, with each release offering a new glimpse of the artist’s capabilities. To consider Miller’s art only in terms of his 2010 breakout, The Invisible Mountain, is like considering an iceberg only in terms of its tip.

Such an assumption is also likely to leave you confused upon hearing The Gorgon Tongue, which compiles Impale Golden Horn (Miller’s 2007 debut as Horseback) and last year’s ultra-limited Forbidden Planet cassette. Each is radically different from the other and also from the lumbering kraut-metal/Americana hybrid upon which Horseback built its reputation.

But that reputation came after more than two years of output, slowly revealing the character of the project and the Chapel Hill musician behind it all. Horseback began as a method for Miller to focus his concentration, to help manage his obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Impale Golden Horn — which Miller spent three years recording and reworking before its 2008 release — introduces Horseback as a patient, meticulous sculptor of sound. “Laughing Celestial Architect,” at 17 seconds past the 15-minute mark, is Impale’s second-longest track (behind the 17-minute opener, “Finale”). It’s a slow, smoldering rise, not unlike waking up as sunlight slowly fills the room. This mixture of ascendant dynamics, meditative repetition, and calming timbres is indicative of the collection. It’s a bluff belying all of Miller’s work to follow. It makes the improvisatory follow-up seem almost ironically relaxed.

The collection of spare, solo, electric-guitar meanderings, billed as Approaching The Invisible Mountain and released under Miller’s given name, sounds as though it’s working through Neil Young’s Dead Man soundtrack, Earth’s lethargic Americana, and Loren Connors’ entrancing resonance.

Though Approaching indicates the melodic direction of The Invisible Mountain, its immediate followers found Miller exploring harsh electronics (Zen Automatica, Vol. 1: V) and monochromatic black metal with a heavy melodic undertow (the MILH IHVH 7”).  That exploratory instinct is pervasive in everything that Miller does. In interviews, he’s quick to offer in-depth analyses of his own work, with references to the sonic and philosophical explorers, like Keiji Haino and Aleister Crowley, that have informed his work.

He contributed an acoustic-guitar piece to the Jack Rose tribute compilation, Honest Strings. And in Mount Moriah — an ensemble informed by classic pop, Southern hymnal music, and country — Miller’s steady, resonant guitar leads offer a voice of reassurance behind the vocals of Heather McEntire (also of Bellafea).

And then there’s The Invisible Mountain, the sprawling, dramatic LP that grew a steady following over three separate releases (CD via Utech in 2009, vinyl via Aurora Borealis in 2010, and finally, wide release via Relapse later in 2010). It was a synthesis of Miller’s preceding catalog: the patient expansiveness of Impale, the spidery Italian-western riffs, and caustic vocal timbres. If anything, its vision was too singular for an artist so prone to explore so many directions.

Since The Invisible Mountain’s release, Miller has unleashed a flood of new material, mostly in limited quantities and all apart from his Invisible Mountain aesthetic. American Gothic finds Miller collaborating on vibrant, electronic drones with Nicholas Szczepanik; a split with Voltigeurs betrayed Miller’s prog fancies on keyboards (beneath a dense layer of blackened skuzz, naturally); and his latest, a seven-inch split with Locrian, finds Miller exploring his darkest monochrome, creating with sound the feeling of dirt piling on one’s chest.

Forbidden Planet is a standout of the recent batch of releases, though, and earns its titular reference to the 1956 sci-fi classic. A stark, desolate landscape scorched by inhuman shrieks and metallic, insectoid chatter, the cassette plays like the soundtrack to a doomed mission’s final moments — like Italo-horror staple Goblin gone to hell. It’s a jarring, uneasy listen, but it’s captivating in the same way that a garrote-taut horror movie is.

It’s a perfect foil to Impale Golden Horn, which presents a suddenly ominous tranquility before Forbidden Planet wages its terror. Miller’s knack for a slowly developing melody is consistent through both, though it’s employed to radically different ends.

Hearing the two together, as The Gorgon Tongue, is unnatural, but it works. The blissfulness of Impale counters the anxiety of Forbidden Planet the way that Forbidden Planet’s harsh sonic decay counters Impale’s respiring warmth. The Gorgon Tongue is, without a doubt, a Jekyll-and-Hyde combination, but Miller is clearly, audibly, the soul of both. It’s as much a unified statement of Miller’s artistic capabilities as The Invisible Mountain.

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