Winding Path By Horseback
By Jordan Lawrence
Jenks Miller’s ever-changing metal project refuses categorization — which is a good thing, since so many get it so wrong
In the lead-up to Half Blood, officially his third LP released under the Horseback moniker, Jenks Miller has done a lot of interviews. He’s chatted with underground metal blogs such as Invisible Oranges and MetalSucks and entertained probing questions from such national heavyweights as Pitchfork.com and NPR. In many of these articles and Q&As, a frustrating problem has lingered, clinging to Miller like the leaching Gollum suggested by his snarling black metal vocals: Very few writers get his story straight.
A drone project that grew into an avant-metal band, which exploded into one of the most stylistically far-flung outfits in today’s musical landscape, Horseback is magnificently difficult to define. It’s a task made even harder without a complete understanding of the catalog.
“If you’re following all the smaller releases and stuff, it makes more sense,” Miller says, enjoying the afternoon sun at Carrboro’s Weaver Street Market. “If you don’t know about those records, or if you’re not interested in those records, it would be really easy to say this project is just total wishy-washy bullshit.”
Miller sports a black hoodie on top of flannel despite the temperate April weather. His answers are quiet but thorough, accompanied by attentive blue eyes whose insistent softness belies their ardent attentiveness. He seems somewhat on-edge, but not in a way that suggests he’s coming unhinged. He has long battled an attention deficit disorder, though, and Horseback is his unorthodox therapy, giving his detail-needy brain a world it can control without restraint. Thus, his stylistic shifts are not a sign of chaos; rather, they are the expression of a mind that finds logic and order where others don’t.
That broad but refined focus first drew serious national attention after metal mainstay Relapse Records reissued The Invisible Mountain in 2010. Originally released in 2009, that record refashioned Horseback’s central identity into that of a heavy-minded rock band, fusing the pastoral drones of Impale Golden Horn, the project’s 2007 debut, to the blackened abuse of 2009’s MILH IHVH 7-inch. Lumbering riffs find the razor’s edge between soothing and scalding, rescuing finesse from within black metal’s serrated exterior, a foil to the fiery fills he shows off with the folk-rock outfit Mount Moriah. Half Blood follows similar paths, but it’s shaded with a broader palette, embedding a litany of new styles within its crusty finish.
Understanding Horseback’s winding trajectory becomes more difficult when trusted outlets misrepresent the intricacies and origins of Miller’s aesthetic. In an April interview with Miller, NPR’s top metal writer claims that Half Blood is Horseback’s third full-length since 2009 and begins one of his questions, “Horseback has never totally been a solo joint, but Half Blood feels like a full band album.” In each of these instances, the facts that he leans on are patently false. Horseback began as an extremely solitary project back in 2006, and since 2009 Miller has produced two “solo” Horseback LPs, three collaborative full-lengths (one under his own name) and one double-CD reissue.
Still, with positive-leaning pieces written by overworked music journalists, Miller mostly lets such errors slide, but there was one interview in which he couldn’t help but speak up. As part of their “Artist to Artist” interview series, the metal blog Cvlt Nation commissioned Locrian guitarist Andre Foisy to chat with Miller. Miller and Foisy are label mates for the second time with both bands signed to Relapse, and Locrian and Horseback released the collaborative album New Dominions last year. Yet despite their proximity, Foisy still managed to screw up many of the details in Miller’s convoluted sonic progression.
“I did one of those where I was interviewing them for their last record, so Andre interviewed me,” Miller says of the chat. “He was getting it wrong, too. I was like, ‘OK, we have worked together. We have been friends. We need to sit down and make sure.’ So I wrote out a really brief little discography thing just in the context of that interview. He is somebody that I’ve worked with for a long time.”
As albums go, Half Blood is fairly forgiving to chronological misinterpretation. For instance, if you mistook last year’s The Gorgon Tongue as a regular studio release instead of the double-jointed reissue that it was, you’d still find tangents that directly connect it to Miller’s most recent work. Though they were actually recorded several years earlier, the two works it contains — Impale Golden Horn and the 2010 cassette release The Forbidden Planet — point to elements integral to Half Blood’s success.
The Forbidden Planet re-imagines black metal as sci-fi horror, shimmery riffs twisted into an abrasive blur, shot through by tensile background noise and creepy sound effects. Similar ghosts in the machine crop up on Half Blood opener “Mithras.” A disturbing undercurrent of piercing organ and strung-out distortion transforms the song’s warm and spacious main riff into a terrifying void. That rich and inviting guitar tone points back to the hypnotic drones of Impale Golden Horn, which presents those brightly bleary tones without Half Blood’s darkened counterpoints.
“All of this stuff comes from the same place, but by the time it gets expressed it feels like there’s a duality there,” Miller says of The Gorgon Tongue and the role it serves within his catalog. “It feels like there are these competing elements, and I wanted to have that represented very explicitly. If you are going to be into this thing, then you’re going to have to be able to deal with all this stuff. It allows me to keep it like a totally free project. I don’t want those definitional lines to encroach on my work too much. I want to keep it open. That means being able to do the softer stuff and the more abrasive stuff.”
After Invisible Mountain, Miller suddenly had the resources to fully realize his creative ideal. With the newfound attention came droves of collaborators and boutique labels clamoring for Miller to work with them. Miller’s policy has always been to explore every artistic outlet open to him, so he spent the next two years recording almost constantly, releasing a steady stream of splits, singles and collaborations that pushed his aesthetic into unprecedented new realms.
A Throne Without a King, his collaboration with Texas experimental collective Pyramids, is a frigid wash of electronic noise that trembles with a sense of subterranean blackness. The Horseback side of his 2010 split with the eminently harsh Voltigeurs twists “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”-style light-psych into a crusty conundrum where sparkling organ duels with sludgy guitar salvos. The Locrian collaboration New Dominions explores the haunting recesses within both bands’ roomy arrangements, filling them with gloomy feedback and the hollow croaks of lost souls. In each instance, Miller extends his reach without stepping outside Horseback’s identity, redefining what the endeavor can be in the process.
Miller’s new facets are the key to Half Blood’s strength. Returning to the widescreen guitar lines and rumbling bass of The Invisible Mountain, Miller ascends to new peaks by filtering in elements from his stylistic walkabout. “Hallucigenia,” the three-part suite that closes the album, is the strongest proof. It’s a mercurial drone epic that begins as a beautifully ethereal mix of guitar and piercing noise but transitions into an otherworldly wall of distorted synthesizer and then a coldly precise dance pulse. It’s frightening, uplifting and utterly transfixing, a sublimely distilled mixture of Miller’s expanded store of ingredients.
“It’s a way of doing a little sight-seeing in the context of your own project,” Miller says of his recent collaborations, expressing the exhilaration and anxiety of ceding precious control to an outside party. “You’re kind of tasked as an artist, you’re challenged to work that back into the narrative. This thing that you didn’t control, you’ve got to make sense of it. For me, that’s been a really good learning experience.”