Pelagic Records was founded by Robin Staps in 2009 as a way to re-release previous albums by his band, The Ocean. New Zealand is about as far geographically as it is possible to be from Pelagic’s home, but that country’s Spook the Horses are definitely far closer musically. Which is not to say that Spook the Horses are easily defined. Apart from existing within a post-metal template, like the ocean (or, indeed, The Ocean) they are in a state of constant flux, swelling and cresting, sometimes calm, and sometimes crashing down. Even the band name reminds me of the ocean, with imagery of the white horses rolling in to the shore. Listening to the music of Spook the Horses reminds me of standing in the sea at St Kilda, and letting those waves crash over me. Sometimes a wave might seem sure to break, and then fade away into a surprising tranquillity. Other times, even when I could see it coming, the ferocity with which it could sweep me off my feet, turn me upside down and pound me into the sea floor was breathtaking and disorienting.
“We’ve always been both a heavy and a quiet band. An entire album of our prettier, more bittersweet inclinations demands a reply of our most aggressive and confrontational. The pendulum must swing back the other way.” – Callum Gay.
Thus, after the calm and beauty of previous release People Used To Live Here, the new album, Empty Body, is unrelenting in its brutality and heaviness. What’s most impressive is the way the album avoids a common pitfall other bands can fall into when creating such a beast of an album. There’s a constancy to it, as (with one notable exception) it never really lets up, keeping momentum until the end – and yet at no point is it likely that someone might complain that “all the songs sound the same”. For all the constancy, there is still surprising variety. It may be variety within a far narrower scope, but it’s still there, and it’s appreciable. It’s also what saves the album for someone like me, who very much still dwells on the fringes of more extreme styles of music. Many bands on the Pelagic label are simply too much for me, but Spook the Horses runs right along the line perfectly. It’s heavy, violent and intense, but never too heavy, too violent, or too intense.
Self Destroyer opens the album with intent. One thing I love about Spook the Horses is the drumming. No matter how hard much the vocals might sometimes spook me, the drums always envelope me in their embrace. Who’s drumming? I don’t know. This is another real plus for the band as every member of the sextet is a multi-instrumentalist and can play every featured instrument. But for me, those drums are just the best. Again, reminding me of being in the ocean, pounded by the breaking waves, as you can feel those drums as much as hear them, hitting with waves of intensity. It’s not just the drums, however, the bass often takes that role too. In the following track, Cell Death, it’s the bass which makes the most impact. But the drums are certainly back in charge for Counting Days on Bone. Spook the Horses is a band that takes the rhythm section seriously! (Check out the bass on one of my favourite tracks, The Maw!)
What strikes me, as I listen to this, is just how succinct it is. None of the tracks are particularly long, and all are around the same length. There’s barely time to right oneself before being hit by the next track. It’s a constant pummelling that I enjoy with masochistic delight. The flow is wonderful, with no one track ever coming anywhere close to outstaying its welcome. Not only do the songs flow beautifully from one to another, but even within each individual song there is almost always a constant ebb and flow. There’s a surprising amount of dynamics within what might initially seem like a single-sounding album. While there is definitely not the traditional long crescendos one might expect from post metal (Empty Body delivers with immediacy), it never feels like the band have taken an unnecessary shortcut.
Apology Rot offers some semblance of reprieve, though it’s very much a false sense of security, as the omnipresent brutality is only barely repressed. That it manages to simmer without ever quite boiling over is impressive – and especially given it is the longest track on the album. But just in case you weren’t sure, Writhing swings back into heavier territory. And swing is a good word to use, as the music of Spook the Horses seems to have a natural swing. The sludgy grooves are irrepressible and irresistible, urging the listener to be swept along with them. Again this is largely down to the drums and bass, which keep the groove going, while over the top the guitars create a melange of discordance, dissonance and melody. I guess I’d probably prefer the band to remain instrumental, because the music is phenomenal, but if you’re a fan of this genre, then they won’t be the handicap they are for me. Though, to be fair, the only time I really have a problem with the vocals is on Watermark. It’s a beautiful, dark and broody interlude that I really do feel might have worked better as an instrumental. As much as the harsh vocals make an impressive and impactful counterpoint, they come across as a little redundant, so powerful and emotive is the music.
Despite my ambivalence for Watermark (equally one of my favourite tracks on the album, and the one that causes me the most frustration), it is part of a very strong sequence towards the end of Empty Body (at a time when attention spans could easily be flagging), and the triptych of The Maw, Watermark and Inheritance really puts paid to the idea of second half fatigue. Inheritance itself, is both a perfect closing number, and the album in a microcosm. The way it builds and then breaks in a completely unexpected manner was awesome and confusing the first time I heard it. No longer confusing, but still awesome, and the way it ends with the same groove as the opening track is just beautiful. I emerge from the surf, bruised and battered, and ready to face the assault all over again.
01. Self Destroyer (3:41)
02. Cell Death (3:42)
03. Counting Days on Bone (4:18)
04. Apology Rot (7:15)
05. Writhing (4:03)
06. Gestalt (1:14)
07. The Maw (4:55)
08. Watermark (4:25)
09. Inheritance (4:57)
Total Time – 38:30
Spooe the Horses are:
[I’m not sure who’s playing what, and I’m not sure it matters.]
Record Label: Pelagic
Country of Origin: New Zealand
Date of Release: 28th August 2020