“I was born to lose / I won’t have this form forever.” Jenks Miller opens Piedmont Apocrypha with this, an elucidation of shape-shifting and impermanence and maybe even reincarnation. And unlike on previous Horseback records, Miller delivers this line without mask or growl, just clearly and precisely over acoustic guitars and fuzzy organ and drums lightly brushed. So different from past records, and yet of the same essence, this is what I’ve always wanted Horseback to sound like. And how fantastically Miller delivers.
The music of Horseback has always taken on weighty and esoteric thoughts, gauging the Mithraic mysteries on Half Blood, titling works after the Gorgons, and referencing anti-art philosopher Henry Flynt. And of course that is on display here, because how many other records include words like apocrypha in their titles? But something feels sparser and more actual, as if Miller has punctured the veil of illusion and caught a glimpse of the real, no matter how briefly. That the lyrics are now intelligible helps this feeling, but doesn’t make up the whole of it. He references trees, weeds, shadows, forms we can see all around us. It’s a mysticism of field and river, a sermon to the birds, or maybe even from them. He seems to imply that no truth exists beyond our sight so long as we are able to see. Or, as he writes in the liner notes, helped along by a procession of spirits.
Miller wisely marries content to form here. The sparse feel of Piedmont belies the layers of sound involved, but with the exception of rollicking closer “Chanting Out the Low Shadow,” these songs are nonetheless open, spare things, no longer content to crush the listener’s ears with barrages of distortion and synthesizers. I am reminded of Miller’s underrated 2013 solo record (though what is Horseback if not a solo project?) Spirit Signal, which found him embracing improvisation and wide-open guitar tones and rejecting rhythm almost entirely. Though not quite as raw, the title track here nonetheless harnesses the intersection of blues and country mined on Spirit Signal but to its own ends. When Miller finally does bring in xylophone, skittering drums and a tambourine loop, they feel less like intrusions than enumerations on a theme, carefully inserted so as to give the track a feeling of perpetual rebirth, growth and decay without vocals to draw attention to it. The music serves its exact purpose, with no need to underline its successes.
He is right to be so confident. Whereas before the ‘rock’ side of Horseback collided with the ‘drone’ side, here both interlock. “Milk and Honey” and “Consecration Blues” use simple guitar patterns to approach very different ideas, the first dissolving into a beautiful and abraded horn coda, the second maintaining a Slint-style hush. And then there is “Low Shadow,” undeniably the heaviest Horseback song to date, a monument of rollicking doom and classic rock that places its beats expertly, crescendoing and retreating in perpetual motion. The only Piedmont track to feature a full band, “Low Shadow” makes full use of a group’s harmonic and rhythmic potentials, layering guitar lines and melodies and bringing a caveman’s pummel to the drums. If you loved the metal experiments on Half Blood, you’ll like this, but so will someone who mostly adored Impale Golden Horn’s drones. No longer are the ideas in competition. Now they achieve the same end, together.
If shape-shifting appears as a theme throughout Miller’s work, he should know something about it. He passes through many musical forms, from the country-rock of Mount Moriah to his solo experimentations in slide guitar, to all the types encountered throughout Horseback’s catalog. It makes him an exciting part of musical worlds both conventional and avant-garde. With Piedmont Apocrypha, he demonstrates exactly why this is.