On ‘The Common Task,’ Horse Lords takes a step toward the future

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Credit: Audrey Gatewood

The music of Baltimore’s Horse Lords has always borne, at heart, a radical trigonometry. Formed in the early 2010s, the quartet–drummer Sam Haberman, guitarist Owen Gardner, saxophone player/percussionist Andrew Bernstein and bassist/electronics guy Max Eilbacher–dependably tussle genres into cinched shapes.

Companionably raucous and rousing, the band’s self-titled 2012 LP set the tone for what was to follow: interlocking, needle-nosed melodies that quote Eastern and African harmonics and rhythms; post-rock as math rock; precision; from-concentrate felicity; a sojourner’s intrepidness. By 2014’s “Hidden Cities,” shorter compositions had become the norm, while 2016’s hallucinatory “Interventions” added looped samples and upped the electronic ante. Occasional “mixtapes” expanded the sonic and rhythmic palette further, with the back half of “Mixtape IV,” from 2017, folding or sliding in stretches of tag-teamed spoken-word poetry.

“The Common Task,” out this week on Northern Spy Records, keeps one foot rooted in the band’s past while planting another firmly in its future. Discordant and threshing, “Against Gravity” is among the more forcefully aggressive tunes Horse Lords have committed to tape–a hard, rapid bop that makes room for synchronized convulsions and hootenanny-ready sax flurries.

Slinky, syncopated and infinitely intricate, “People’s Park” recalls the winsome, virtuosic artificiality of Tortoise and Steely Dan, its percussive groove splintering purposefully, in expressed denial of a traditional conclusion.

For “Fanfare for Effective Freedom,” Horse Lords go all Horse Lords: head rushes of knotted, atonal guitars, kaleidoscopic synthesizers sounding like digitized chimes, spackled beats juicing the tempos; this is nothing less than gourmet roughage for the ears, two or three courses’ worth. Sometimes, the past is where it’s at.

Duncan Moore, late of Needle Gun, contributes searing accordion drones to “The Radiant City,” and–corsucating electronics and filtering effects aside–it’s unclear where, exactly, his input ends and his hosts’ performance begins. That’s fine; the future, after all, is inherently mysterious.

Speaking of which, “Integral Accident” is both the centerpiece of “The Common Task” and its biggest swing. For 19 fraught minutes, the band exercises a new sort of disorientation. Field-recorded crowd chatter and sonic detritus implies unbound space. Guest singer Bonnie Lander’s voice burns at an almost impossibly high frequency, and other guests–accordionist Leo Svirsky (Couch Slut, Hume), violinist Ledah Finck and bassoonist James Young (Waco Mammoth)–quietly let themselves into the mix. Serrated effects scrape at or strafe the silence; the instruments seem intent at taking one another’s temperature.

Just when the listener has acclimated to a state of perpetual warming up, a song coheres, somewhere out in the ether, with Gardner’s relentless guitar snarl taking point, eventually accruing a patina of handclaps and a suffocating sound mosaic. Mesmerizingly, “Integral Accident” never quite stops evolving. Is this fusion gospel? Is this chamber funk? Was all that a prelude to noise? To these ears, the song in its final, warped movement suggests a hot-air balloon slowly slipping the bonds of earth.

Horse Lords will play a record release show for “The Common Task” this Thursday at the Ottobar with Rest opening. Visit theottobar.com for tickets and more information.

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