Rock quartet Horse Lords’ latest album, The Common Task, dropped in March of this year just as the COVID-19 pandemic overtook the country. The new record features five tracks from the band, who are noted not only for avant-garde aesthetics, but also for the use of refretted guitars tuned to “just intonation,” the tuning system utilized by La Monte Young and the basis for Harry Partch’s 43-tone scale. Just intonation tunes pitches to each other using ratios—rather than the predominant equal temperament which sets equal distance between pitches—and aligns with the natural overtone series to create clean and ringing harmonies that give chords and melodies a more distinct and visceral quality. Just intonation in the West has origins in ancient Greek music theory and was one of many tuning systems used for thousands of years before equal temperament became dominant. In the last hundred years Western musicians have returned to pursuing it in earnest, along with other deviations from the established norm.
Until recently, microtonal techniques were found almost exclusively in the music of composers such as Partch and Young, or in non-Western music. Horse Lords, however, are part of a movement of microtonal rock musicians that have been simmering steadily since the turn of the century, and they are one of several groups that have succeeded in attracting a following, not only from the standard milieu of fans of any group or artist, but also from among the proponents and aficionados of microtonality.
Horse Lords formed out of the noise scene in Baltimore in the early 2010s. Andrew Bernstein (saxophone/percussion), Max Eilbacher (bass/electronics), Owen Gardner (guitar), and Sam Haberman (drums) originally got together for a single show, and the idea of being a rock band seemed quaint to them: “Somewhat of a joke at the beginning,” and “definitely not meant to be a serious project,” are how Eilbacher and Bernstein described their feelings when the band came together.
“At the time [in Baltimore] there weren’t a lot of rock bands, the noise scene was vibrant,” said Bernstein. Gardner even lovingly described the various noise groups as “a bunch of shit on the table.” For them, the important difference was the opportunity to focus on composition, that is, thinking about structure. According to Bernstein, “It felt good. I didn’t consider myself a noise musician, and maybe that’s what makes Horse Lords seem fresh.”
Electronics, tuning, rhythm, and grooves are each components of the entirety of their work. Normally, rock musicians working with alternate tunings use them to create a strangeness that draws attention, not only to itself, but also to our own expectations of harmony and melody. In their case, however, the tuning is just one facet of the music—all of which point toward the reality of sound itself. The moments of visceral, ringing harmony—along with their use of groove fragments and rhythmic techniques which deny the familiar sense of a rock song—combine to make the sound itself the focus of attention. This indicates both a different structure to the music and their sensibility as noise musicians. Sound, not music, is paramount.
And while their use of just intonation is novel, it’s the band’s rhythmic character that defines their music more than anything else. Most notable is how the snare drum is divorced from the other instruments, especially the bass and remaining drums. This sharply upsets the familiar rock song form. Their approach to grooves gives the band another unique character: normally, a single groove might define an entire song (Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”), but Horse Lords utilizes groove fragments and lays them on top of one another. As a song moves toward a point of convergence, the grooves will shift abruptly (yet logically) in the midst of a track with little regard for the previous groove—almost as if the previous material is abandoned. In this sense they have given up on the possibility that grooves can develop in a meaningful way. Instead, they simply give us the essence of each groove juxtaposed against driving rhythms, which are themselves thrown off kilter by the divorced snare drum.
Structure is most apparent in these abrupt changes. The sound moves organically from section to section, and it’s there where tracks sound like composed works rather than driving jam sessions. Even though the band admits to moments of indeterminacy and improvisation, everything is thoroughly composed and workshopped.
Electronics are used in a similar manner, functioning either as “an extension of a compositional theme,” said Eilbacher, “or adding another textual dimension.” Often, the electronics overtake the endings of their songs—in one sense obliterating the music with an overwhelming wall of sound. It affirms the noise aesthetic by expressing a concern with the facts of the sound itself, and not what that sound might communicate.
The Common Task differs from their last full length record, Interventions (2016), yet still retains the unique character of the band. For any group, moving in a new direction while still retaining one’s distinctiveness is a mark of success. Where Common Task differs most is instrumentation and the connections between the tracks. They feature the entire band (with the notable exception of “The Radiant City,” which leans hardest into Horse Lords’ tuning); and, unlike Interventions, the songs were conceived and composed with the intention of flowing from one to the next.
In a 2016 review of Interventions, Ben Ratliff of the New York Times extolled their many influences and pointed out their connections to classical minimalist music, a connection that they acknowledge: “We’re definitely a minimalist band,” said Eilbacher “It comes more from the inspiration than the output,” added Bernstein, who explained that the context of their music—playing in bars and clubs—changes things entirely, “we’re not playing austere process music. Rhythmic processes inform the parts we’re writing, and that’s where the direct line with minimalism comes in.”
For their part, they identify more with the minimalism of James Tenney, Tony Conrad, Tom Johnson, and Young (one of the sources of their tuning system) than with the minimalist music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass. For the composers they love, Gardner and Eilbacher explained minimalism “shows up in the rigor of the composition,” where “as little input as possible produces the most varied output.”
One track of particular interest is the album’s B-side, “Integral Accident.” Beginning with recorded sounds of the murmuring and chatter that precedes any recital, it then moves into the staggered entrances of strings and voices, which are then eventually joined by Horse Lords themselves. Unlike Common Task’s other tracks, “Integral Accident” was commissioned by the Peabody Conservatory’s new music ensemble, Now Hear This. “David Smooke, [Peabody] faculty member and composer is around in Baltimore and is an acquaintance of ours,” explained Bernstein, “He recommended us as the artists in residence for the semester. We’d been talking about doing a Horse Lords expanded ensemble piece for years, and this gave us the opportunity to do it.”
“Integral Accident” wasn’t the only work by Horse Lords in this vein. In February and March of this year they scored the music for an opera, The First Thing That Happens (libretto by Lola B. Pierson, produced by The Acme Corporation). Composing an opera was remarkably different from their usual process of composition and performance. “We had to work with what we were given, which didn’t make it easier,” said Gardner.
Previously planned spring and early summer performances, of course, have been canceled. Those included the usual shows in bars and clubs, but also the Bang on a Can LONG PLAY Festival, scheduled for the first weekend in May. The Common Task tour included electronics that were integrated with the full band, and the band still hopes to “try that out sometime in the future.”