Based only on The Invisible Mountain and Half Blood, the two well-publicized and much-lauded Horseback LPs released via the stalwart metal label Relapse, Jenks Miller's outfit has defined its kind-of-metal aesthetic well: winding riffs, tenacious repetition and circular drums, all coiled beneath Miller's understated croak.
But apart from those albums, Miller's musical wanderlust has taken Horseback—to say nothing of his solo work or with the alt-country band Mount Moriah—in a variety of stylistic directions, from comforting minimalism to searing hybrids of black metal and harsh noise. In light of Horseback's deep catalog of singles, splits, cassettes and CD-Rs, the metal scene's embrace of the band has sometimes seemed a bit curious.
"Despite my best attempts to keep it weirder than [metal], it feels like it's been pigeonholed a little bit," Miller told me recently. "I wanted a little more flexibility."
With the new three-hour, three-CD set A Plague of Knowing, Miller again seems to shrug off the confines of genre. A clearinghouse of one-off releases, unheard experiments, live cuts and a new 40-minute closer, A Plague of Knowing would be exhausting if it weren't so vibrant and varied.
Some of Miller's very best work under the Horseback moniker is included: "On the Eclipse," originally the A-side of a 7-inch released by Brutal Panda Records, adds an inviting swell of organ and an acoustic-guitar rollick to serpentine Neil Young riffs and Miller's growl. Likewise, "Thee Cult of Henry Flynt," whose namesake composer shares Miller's affections for minimalism and Southern traditional music, soars with a buzzing, repetitious riff and a stiff, martial rhythm. Together, they form a slow, somewhat familiar melody. "IHVH" and "MILH," released together on another 7-inch, are the searing, blackened noise suites that marked Miller's first ventures into metallic territory, while the 20-minute "Impale Golden Live" offers an elegant and ominous reminder of Horseback's early work in intricately arranged drones. A more recent live cut delivers an almost-faithful rendition of The Stooges' Fun House classic "T.V. Eye." The title track, composed specifically for this release, offers a disorienting mesh of psych-rock space-out and minimalist insistence; at more than 40 minutes, it earns its tag of epic.
But this isn't an endurance test. For the ever-adventurous Miller, the chance to gather all of his experiments into one collection presented an opportunity to upset some of the most fundamental notions of what Horseback sounds like.
"A lot of those splits and 7-inches and smaller records represent me trying out a new approach to composition or using a new tool that I haven't used before," Miller said. "So I kind of saw them as filling in the space around the full-lengths and connecting them in very vague ways, but also standing on their own in terms of the way they all sound."
"Do You Have a True Feeling?," which appears in two versions here, maintains Miller's melodic patience but drapes its gauzy organ across a propulsive drum machine. Miller sings—yes, sings—a haunting pop song that hews closer to an indie rock oddity than heavy metal. The loping, acoustic "Recite" would not be a misfit among Megafaun's more meandering tunes.
Though it wanders in many directions, A Plague of Knowing feels, like all of Horseback's work, to be part of one long but constant and coherent journey. By its end, Miller emerges as a more distinctive artist whose apparently disparate efforts as Horseback, a solo artist and with Mount Moriah are not so different, after all.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Overdue payoffs, new promises."