New Zealand six-piece Spook the Horses reconfigured much of their sound on their last album, 2015’s Rainmaker. It was a risky albeit successful manoeuvre that saw the Wellington band’s post-rock past transformed into a more aesthetically imaginative future. And on Spook the Horses’ brand new album, People Used to Live Here, the group fearlessly remodel their sound all over again.
This time round, Spook the Horses’ metamorphosis is a darkly atmospheric one. Admittedly, ‘atmospheric’ is a bit of a catch-all phrase. In fact, when it comes to the post-everything domain that Spook the Horses inhabit, you can clearly use ‘atmospheric’ to describe the work of anyone from Cult of Luna to Neurosis to Mono to Amenra to Mogwai and beyond. And all of those aforementioned groups certainly sound like they’ve influenced Spook the Horses at some point.
However, I’m not using ‘atmospheric’ to emphasise those influences. I’m using it to describe the feel of People Used to Live Here, because the album’s overall ambience is as important as its mechanics or contents. In fact, the physicality of Spook the Horses’ sound and the atmosphere it generates have never played such crucially intertwining roles.
People Used to Live Here is Spook the Horses’ darkest and starkest release yet, and it’s their strangest and quietest album by a wide margin too. For some fans, that might upend what they were anticipating after Rainmaker’s stormy skies. But People Used to Live Here makes great use of that liminal space where sound and effect coil around each other. There’s a lot more whispered music here, but this still feels like the band’s heaviest release in emotional terms.
The heartbreaking beauty of People Used to Live Here relies not just on the austere nature of the music itself but also on its texture and form. Just really stop and really listen to the album’s best track, “Blessed Veins”, and you’ll experience the tactile pleasure of its bleak bliss slowly enveloping you. You’ll feel the mournful chill of “Lurch” wrap itself around your marrow as well. And “Made Shapeless” or “Near Then, Far Now” feel so exposed and vulnerable, and so wonderfully submersive.
In one sense, People Used to Live Here is Spook the Horses’ most fragile release yet. But that’s also it’s greatest strength. That fragility only adds to the powerful sense of isolation and desolation. (FYI: People Used to Live Here also serves as an excellent debut for Spook the Horses’ new and very fitting home, Pelagic Records.)
Tracks like “Crude Shrines” or “Herald” showcase Spook the Horses’ ability to construct lush and evocative songs imbued with a sense of memory, even while working with a far less ornate palette. That starker process provides slow-burning catharsis throughout the album –– recalling latter-era Earth, Mogwai’s melancholic suites, or even the epic sweep of Godspeed You! Black Emperor (albeit with much shorter tracks).
The album’s pre-release press said the band aimed to conjure a “post-apocalyptic soundtrack to abandoned places”. And there’s certainly a palpable sense of solitude to be found here. That mood is shaped by minimalist musical movements, and far subtler gestures than ever before. And given Spook the Horses’ previous predilection for hammering the point home via thundering crescendos, People Used to Live Here shows significant creative development in both songwriting and arranging. (Something the artistic chemistry of a band filled with multi-instrumentalists no doubt encourages and supports.)
It’s worth pointing out that People Used to Live Here is as different to Rainmaker as that album was to Spook the Horses’ 2011 debut, Brighter. And while that changeability makes sense, given the band’s repeated musical experimentation, the far more downbeat and desolate terrain of People Used to Live Here might prove too testing for some.
There’s a notable absence of skyrocketing soundscapes on the album, which are something that Spook the Horses have delivered with consummate skill in the past. Even though People Used to Live Here’s final track, “Following Trails”, harks back to the band’s heavier history, it still fades out on a much more somber note. So if you’re looking for the spirited post-rock or crashing post-metal that Spook the Horses previously supplied, you may feel confused or even disappointed. People Used to Live Here’s subdued undertones do represent a marked aesthetic change.
To be fair though, Spook the Horses have always clearly enjoyed challenging their audience as much as themselves. Change has been a constant. And at this point it feels like a creative imperative. So remodelling their sound, no matter how dramatically, is really no surprise.
In fact, for some bands, easing off the distortion pedal could be seen as a worrying step into perilous pastures. But for Spook the Horses it’s just a natural part of a sonic trajectory that’s seen the band constantly evolving since day one. There is a lot that’s different about Spook the Horses on People Used to Live Here. But one thing that hasn’t changed is how the album’s success is inextricably linked to the band’s search for innovative ways to create enriching and often other-worldly music.
Spook the Horses do explore riskier artistic territory on People Used to Live Here, reshaping their music more radically than before. However, once again the band’s artistic courage has resulted in an album that blends beauty and darkness in truly poetic and haunting ways.
(People Used to Live Here is released 10 November via Pelagic Records.)