Spook the Horses—Brighter (Review + Q&A)

SPOOK THE HORSES—BRIGHTER (REVIEW + Q&A)

It wasn’t remotely difficult to decide which album to review first in 2012. Brighter, the debut release from post-rock outfit Spook the Horses, of Wellington, New Zealand, is stacked with all the panoramic creativity needed to kick start the year in invigorating fashion. With an hour’s worth of undulating, textural post-rock, Brighter shifts effortlessly between picturesque soundscapes and pugnacious tussles, with scatterings of crestfallen vocals and heavily laden dynamics. Of course, all of those descriptive terms could apply to any heavy post-rock outfit. So what makes Spook the Horses’ sonic arrangements so good? Well, I’m glad you asked.

One of the finest aspects of post-rock (and post-metal) is that the genres are stacked with bands that stubbornly refuse easy classification. While there are fairly definable elements to post-rock—that mercurial juxtaposition of abrasiveness and ambience—it’s a massively varied field. We all know what post-rock sounds like, plenty of the soft and the loud, but there’s a world of difference between Slint and Neurosis, Isis and Mogwai, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor aren’t likely to be confused with Pelican anytime soon. I’m not going to pretend the post-rock world isn’t littered with hapless, uninspired outfits, but it’s certainly the perpetual motion of its best bands that keeps the genre from getting stale.

Spook the Horses have made a great start at ensuring the genre stays fresh by blending elements of the heavier post-metal set—particularly in their sludgy vocal cadences and Russian Circlesesque tonality—with the lighter, more progressively minded pursuits of bands like Mono or Red Sparowes. New Zealand already has a bit of post-rock currency, with Jakob, Kerretta and HDU gaining a measure of international success, and Spook the Horses’ debut reveals a depth of talent that could easily lead them to become an equally distinctive entity. It all comes down to how far they’re willing to push their dialectical nature, because it’s Brighter‘s counterpointing passages, the argumentative bursts and graceful moments of surrender, that make it such a compelling album.

First track, “Very Little Is Certain, But”, wastes no time in letting you know there’s a trio of weighty guitars on board. With shadings of desolate vocals, the song moves fluently through a heaving mix of ringing riffs and escalating crescendos before drifting out on a tantalizingly sinister throb. It’s rough round the edges, buzzes with a sense of expectancy, and is a great set-up for all that follows.

The band make superb use of the atmospherics with synth and samples, and the guitars work hard on the denser moments of aggression. “Paper Harbours, Hanging Skies”, with its churning velocity, is the harbinger of the album’s most overt hostility, while “My Memories Will Be of Muted Greys” and “Ashen Smiles and Backlit Clouds” both utilize honeyed intros to draw you into waves of crushing riffs and harsher intonations. And while each song is similarly changeable, defined by their contrary nature, they also have their own distinct characteristics—a post-punk thread or shimmering riff here, an indie-pop sublimity there.

There’s also a point of real difference to be found on “My Songs Will Be Sung in White”. Borne along with bowed guitar, piano and a jangling swaying ambience, the track offers up some breathing space before the final track arrives. The 12 minutes of “My Photographs Will Be of Skylines” end the album with a sweeping array of metamorphosing harmonics and propulsive percussion.

Six songs, 60 minutes. We’re talking epic here, and that’s a fairly ambitious endeavor for the first time out of the blocks. Spook the Horses could easily have become lost in self-indulgent pursuits, but there’s not a hint of ostentatious showmanship on display. There are dips, dives and gyrations all over the place, and plenty of captivating nuances, but there’s a strong sense of compositional restraint—the band seem to have recognized that every track needs to be compact enough to be a singular experience. Brighter is an extremely promising debut, and Spook the Horses are a band you’ll definitely want to keep a very close eye on.

Spook The Horses @ Bandcamp (Self-released, 2011)

I could have left it there. Reviews done, and I’m recommending you check the band out. Simple enough. But the more I listened to the album, the more I wanted to know about the band. One email, and here it is. A brief Q&A with guitarist and vocalist Callum Gay. Cheers Callum, my apologies for the late night Tuesday interrogation.

Can you give me a little background to the band. You’ve been writing for some time, but when did the band really consolidate into a recording and touring outfit?

The band really became the group it is now once I (Callum) moved from drums to guitar/electronics. We did a lot of writing with three guitars and Zach was able to reshape the drum parts into what they are now. We’ve recently had Alex Ross, our original bass player replace Blair so there’s a new live dynamic there, too.

I’ve read that you prefer the band to be termed ‘heavy post-rock’, but there’s a lot of post-metal elements to the album. Does that reflect your various backgrounds and inspirations? Are you concerned at all with how the band is labeled in the end?

We’re not particularly concerned with what style of music people want to call us, no. Heavy music seems to, in my mind at least, have developed from ‘metal’ or  ‘hardcore’ to the point where a band can be really heavy and really intense and not suitably be called either. We’re inspired by a lot of metal bands, for sure. We seem to be tagged online as ‘atmospheric post-metal’ a lot, that’s fine by me.

How long was the recording process for the album?

We did the drums and bass live in December of 2010 and then recorded and mixed everything else pretty sporadically in the first half of 2011. It was fairly arduous process, but we had a lot of freedom without a deadline. We learnt a lot from it.

How’d you guys go about it? There’s a very gritty resonance to the album, was that rawness and palpability something you were specifically aiming for? 

It was important for us to make the heavy parts as heavy as we could but keep the quieter parts nice and spacious. I guess the ‘grit’ comes from wanting it to also be fairly organic. We wanted to capture something of a live sound, so we just got our amps sounding nice and recorded the parts we wrote without getting too experimental or doing heaps of layers and overdubs.

Brighter is self-released by the band, thats an admirable step in many ways, and there’s certainly a strong DIY ethic to many NZ bands. Was it important for you to do so? Or was it a matter of having the tunes and wanting them out there as soon as possible?

Thats very kind of you. It was self-produced purely out of necessity. We’re lucky enough to have some great friends with great equipment who we could record it with so we took the opportunity as soon as we could. When playing heavy music it’s very easy to get into the mindset that most people aren’t going to be particularly interested in what you do, so sitting around and waiting for a label to throw money at you is an even worse idea than usual.

I’m always impressed by  young bands who are confident enough to step into the post-rock arena. It’s a genre thats defined by some fantastic bands. Who do you guys look to as leaders, or perhaps, who do you guys feel were inspirational in your decision to join the pack. 

We were pretty inspired by Jakob in the early days, they were always able to make their heavy riffs so enormous. I was listening to a lot of the more ambient and glitchy bands too. Stars of the Lid, eluvium, múm, that vibe. I don’t know if I’m qualified to say who the leaders are! I’m consistently impressed by Cult of Luna, Breach, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Low. There are too many good bands.

Albums done, and it’s out there for folks to pick up. What’s on the agenda for 2012 for Spook The Horses?

Lots of shows all over the country, and hopefully some overseas as well, all going well. We have a few ideas up our sleeve, but don’t want to give away too much just yet!

Spook The Horses:

Ben Dentice: Guitar

Donnie Cuzens: Guitar

Callum Gay: Guitar, Vocals, Electronics

Alex Ross: Bass

Zach Meech: Drums